Red wine vinegar is made by allowing fermentation to continue until wine turns sour, then straining and bottling. Artisanal varieties (unlike the big industrial productions) are aged in wooden barrels for up to two years before bottling, imparting some of the same flavors found in red wine, including fruit flavors and wood flavors. Our test found striking variations in acidity and color (one vinegar was fruit-punch pink, another cola brown like a gone-bad Chianti), as well as taste. But we were surprised to discover that prices and ratings were not much related. Two of our favorites cost less than 30 cents per ounce, and the most expensive vinegar we tasted―almost $3 an ounce―placed near the bottom.
OUR TOP PICK: Martin Pouret Vinaigre D’Orléans Vin Rouge, $10 (17.7 ounces)
Made using the Orléans Method, a process in which wine is combined with an acetobacter (think of it as a vinegar starter) and aged in oak barrels, this vinegar’s price is impressively low for such a high-quality, artisanal product (some sell for two or three times as much). Tasters enjoyed its slightly woody aromas, sour-apple flavors, and intense but not overwhelming tartness.
GREAT VALUE: Pompeian Red Wine Vinegar, $2.19 (16 ounces)
The least expensive vinegar in our test amazed us with its well-balanced flavor. The acidity gives way to very grapey, almost portlike flavors that would be welcome in any pan sauce, especially over pork or chicken.
SPLURGE-WORTHY: Lucini Pinot Noir Italian Wine Vinegar, $11 (8.5 ounces)
At $1.29 per ounce, this vinegar may be expensive, but we like its balance of acidity and sweetness, underpinned by a wide range of fruity flavors, from peaches and plums to lemon. (We also liked knowing which grape it came from―a rarity with most red wine vinegars.) It’s smooth enough to drizzle straight from the bottle over tender-crisp steamed or sautéed vegetables, like asparagus or broccoli.
PANTRY STAPLE: Holland House Red Wine Vinegar, $3.29 (12 ounces)
A very low acidity level, brilliant ruby-red color, and mild flavor make this selection great to have on hand for everyday cooking or simple vinaigrettes. Its mellow taste means that even if you increase the ratio of vinegar to oil (see Test Kitchen tips below), you won’t be overwhelmed by sourness.
FROM THE TEST KITCHEN: Get the most from vinegar's zing.
1. Make simple sauces more complex. Add a splash of vinegar to quick pan sauces, and the acid will help flavors blossom throughout your dish. Adding more―a half cup―gives extra bold flavor to the tangy tomato sauce that’s the base for the Chicken Cacciatore Sicilian-Style.
2. Vary your vinaigrette. The classic vinaigrette ratio is 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar. Changing that to 2 to 1―or even equal parts vinegar and oil―makes for a tangier dressing that’s lower in calories; use a mildly tart vinegar. Add a small amount of honey to balance the flavors.
3. Marinate briefly. Vinegar is often a key component of meat marinades. Watch the clock, though: Marinating too long in an acidic mixture can cause meat to become mealy. Remove after 30 minutes or less.
4. Preserve with flavor. Pickling is a great way to preserve produce, from cucumbers to green beans. While white vinegar may be traditional, the addition of red wine vinegar brings a richer, full-flavored taste. Note: The red color will lend a slightly pink hue to foods.
HOW WE TEST
Method: We held two blind tastings of 16 plain (unflavored) red wine vinegars. Six food editors and chefs participated. We dipped pieces of bread in the vinegars to tone down acidity and allow
us to taste subtle flavor notes.
Nutritional guidelines: Red wine vinegar is a Cooking Light pantry staple because it adds flavor while contributing no sodium and few or no calories (tested vinegars ranged from 0 to 5 calories per tablespoon). Since such small amounts are used in most instances, red wine vinegar has essentially no impact on nutrition.