So, Ya Wanna Make Vinegar From Leftover Wine, Eh?
“Kim, what the heck is that gob of goo?” Or, “You’re Stinkin’ Up The Kitchen Again!” (geo t.)
Every now and then the topic of how to make vinegar from leftover wine pops up in casual conversation amongst us winos and foodies. Having been involved in vinegar-making for over 20 years I have amassed a nice little collection of articles and, of course, that wondrous gob of goo called Mother of Vinegar you seen on your left. (Click images to enlarge)
In a circa 1990 Detroit Free Press article, “Leftover Wine Can Make a Fine Vinegar,” then wine critic, Christopher Cook wrote, “It’s enough to make a wine lover cringe. All those bottoms of wine bottles that end up being dumped down Detroit sinks because they sat around uncorked a few days.” Well, that doesn’t happen too often around here at Gang Central, thank you very much!
Over the years, my crock of vinegar has been blessed with the dregs of incredible wines left over from large tastings. Every time I empty the bottom of a bottle of wine into the crocks I smile, knowing that the crock has thanked me.
Any Zinfandel, Cabernet, Merlot, etc. will do although there are vinegar sites out there that warn you not to use wines with added sulfites but I’ve never had a problem with that. Once the wine is transformed (sometimes taking 6 months or more) the resulting vinegar is intense and with a smell so overpowering it indeed stinks up the kitchen – but it’s a good stink! Here’s how I started all those years ago…
Since I didn’t know of anyone who had a crock or a barrel of vinegar which contains the slimy Mother of Vinegar I let my fingers do the walking and found a hardware store on the east side of Detroit which specialized in wine-making supplies. (It has since closed.) They also stocked the mycoderma aceti, the bacteria culture, used to make vinegar. It came in a jar and was clear, like water. I purchased it and a crock and was on my way.
When I arrived home, I dumped the bacteria culture into the crock along with two bottles of wine. Over a period of three months I watched the wine transform into vinegar. The transformation began when a hazy veil covered the liquid. The veil is referred to as bacteria zoogloea. Undisturbed and relying on oxygen, the zoogloea forms on the surface of the vinegar to protect the contents underneath. As it grows it becomes leather-like but upon touching it you discover a slimy, slippery yet solid rubbery gelatinous mass – like raw liver. If left undisturbed it will keep growing and could eventually take over the entire container. Allowing alcohol additions to wet the surface of the zoogloea cuts off oxygen. It will sink to the bottom lifeless allowing another to form to protect the contents (description partially taken from Brian J. Helsaple’s A – Z vinegar glossary which is no longer online).
Mother of Vinegar is defined as a slimy, gummy substance made up of various bacteria — specifically mycoderma aceti — that cause fermentation in wine and cider and turn them into vinegar. Known as mère de vinaigre in French and sometimes simply as “mother” in English, its growth is best fostered in a medium-warm environment (60°-85°F). The mother should be transferred to a new mixture or discarded once the liquid has turned to vinegar.
The Internet has several sites describing various ways on how to “properly” make vinegar and for all intents and purposes, they all work even if they seem to contradict each other. One way is to set up a barrel, crock or jar with a funnel fit snugly into a plastic tube. Let the funnel sit on top of the jar or the barrel’s bung hole being careful to ensure that fruit flies cannot enter. You may need to use cheesecloth. The idea here is let the mother grow on top, never disturbing it, while you feed fresh wine into the funnel. The resulting vinegar is removed via a spigot at the bottom of the barrel/jar/crock. This is great for testing the quality of your vinegar or drawing off finished vinegar without disturbing the mother. However, sludge may develop over time at the bottom of the container plugging the spigot.
Another way is to just keep adding fresh wine on top of the old mother which will cause the mother to sink and regrow on top. You’ll need to clean out the old sunken mother once or twice a year. If you don’t it will eventually fill up the jar leaving no room for liquid and it will “rot.” It shrinks and gets a sort of crinkled black edge.
I have used the second method for 20 years and currently have about 35 gallon jars and crocks squirreled away in my cupboards. I also have three oak barrels and a large Italian demijohn with a spigot and funnel/tube system which works well.
Once the vinegar is deemed ready (by taste and smell) I ladle out the resulting vinegar and strain it through several layers of coffee filters if I think it needs it. This technique of removing any sludge or bits of floating Mother works well. The vinegar is dark and intense and better than anything you could buy in a store. If I’m careful with the ladle to not disturb the sludge at the bottom the vinegar will not be cloudy
DO’S and DON’TS
After your crock is established, try to feed your Mother every other week or so with a glass or two of wine.
Let your Mother breathe. A linen napkin or cheesecloth works well if you are using a crock or jar.
Don’t add fortified wine (port, sherry, etc.) to your crock unless to add water to dilute the high alcohol content.
Other interesting tidbits:
You can use a slab of Mother from red wine to start a crock of white. Some sites say that this won’t work but it does.
In an April 14, 1991 New York Times Magazine article “The Good Mother” by William L. Hamilton, Hamilton dumps both red and white wines into his barrel. Others say “don’t do that.” I’ve done it with no resulting problems. But I tend to keep red red and white white.
Feel free to ask questions below in the comments box. On our old site when I originally published this article over 10 years ago I had hundreds of comments and words of wisdom but, alas, those are gone now. So, let’s start over here.