Your Italian wine is organic but what about your vinegar?

A new category on the blog: de aceto.

Above: a popular brand of organic-certified red wine vinegar in Italy. The designation “biologico” on the label denotes “organic” in Italian.

Over the course of my three trips to Italy this year (so far), it seemed that organic wine vinegars kept popping up at every meal. One of the most popular brands, at least in Piedmont where I was teaching, was this Ki Group red wine vinegar, above.

(I’m not a fan of the commercial “balsamic” vinegars that generally find their way to even some of the best restaurants in Italy. They are mostly made from wine vinegar that’s been aromatized with real or concentrated balsamic or even caramel. The balsamic vinegar trade, sadly, is one of Italy’s most under-regulated imho.)

According to the product profile, the Ki Group vinegar is organic certified and made from Italian grapes. Otherwise, there’s little information about how it’s made beyond the ingredients listed on the company’s website — “wine, antioxidant: sulfur dioxide.”

One can only wonder what went into the wine besides grapes and there’s no information as to whether or not it was inoculated. There’s also no indication of how the vinegar was inoculated (all commercial and nearly all small-scale production vinegar is inoculated with a live “mother” yeast).

The best vinegars I’ve ever tasted were those produced by Joško Sirk in Collio (Friuli). There’s no mention on Sirk’s site of organic growing practices as far as I can find. It only mentions the high-quality of the fruit used to vinify the base wines.

I’ve also tasted wonderful homemade vinegars that have been fermented by trattoria owners in Modena and Reggio Emilia provinces (Emilia) where home and in-house production is widely found and where vinegar culture is widespread and heartfelt.

But I’ve never heard an oste (countryside restaurateur) say that her/his vinegars are organic. Most of them will tell you that they make their vinegars using their guests’ leftover wine (whatever that might be) and a mother yeast they’ve been cradling for years.

We consume a lot of vinegar at home (because we eat a lot of leafy greens), mostly organic vinegars that we buy from Whole Foods. Like the Ki Group vinegar I tasted repeatedly in Italy, they are good but nothing out of the ordinary. Honestly, I don’t taste much difference between the commercial high-volume vinegars we get our favorite local supermarket chain and the more expensive organic-certified bottlings we get from Whole Foods. And as in the case of the Ki Group vinegar, there’s not much info available regarding the growing and production practices. But we buy them nonetheless (being the vinegar suckers that we are).

I know you have organic wine in your glass. But what about the vinegar you use to dress your salad and pickle your vegetables?

For the record, the restaurant where I used that vinegar to dress my salad doesn’t make any distinction on its list between organically farmed wines and conventionally farmed ones. But it serves organic certified vinegar. Salad for thought…

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