What Really Makes Wine Turn into Vinegar?

A Scientific as well as Culinary Answer to This Confusing Question

I answered this question a long time ago, but it turns out I only had half the answer. Does wine turn into vinegar? This web site says yes, while this web site says no. Both sides seem pretty authoritative, but it turns out that neither give a complete answer. To help me get it right, I've enlisted the help of Derek Shedd, enologist, winemaker, and all around Smart Guy who works in the lab at Dobbes Family Estate Winery.

Mattie: Can wine turn to vinegar?
Derek: In wine, acetic acid is an indicator of wine spoilage. If wine gets infected with acetobacter and other conditions are right, then acetic acid will be produced, along with lots of other bacteria (pediococcus, etc.).

We're talking about acetic acid because one definition of vinegar is diluted acetic acid. Derek says that acetic acid can be produced from wine under the right conditions. So, what's the confusion? It turns out that it's all a classic example of a verbal dispute. In philosophy, a verbal dispute is when two sides are arguing about something but they agree on the facts. The confusion stems from a definition, and in this case the definition for "vinegar."

Everyone agrees that wine can become acidic when it's been sitting around for a while. However, without adding the specific bacteria used to make vinegar (mycoderma aceti), this super acidic wine likely won't taste good, causing many to hesitate to call it vinegar. The verbal confusion here seems to be one between scientists and chefs.

A chef will say, No, wine cannot turn into vinegar because old wine doesn't taste like vinegar. It tastes bad.

A scientist will say, Technically acetic acid is created when bacteria, which is found everywhere in the air, comes into contact with alcohol for a long time. So wine can turn into vinegar (the scientific definition of vinegar is something like diluted acetic acid).

Here's what you need to know. Technically, wine can turn into vinegar when it is exposed to a lot of oxygen for a long time (months at least). Should you add a little to add richness to your tomato sauce? Sure. Should you use it for salad dressing? I wouldn't. It's highly unlikely that it will taste that good.

I asked Derek if he thought that a wine vinegar produced without a mother would be tasty. He said, "You would need to consult a better source than I, but the difference is what happens when you have an infection of acetobacter bacteria and what happens when you have an inoculation of a specific bacteria (the latter is a pure culture). The stuff that tends to infect wine can quickly turn acetic acid to acetone, which does not happen with a true mother. (Get a mother culture and keep it safe and happy and pure)."

I love science! If you know more about this, please set the record straight. But as it stands, I think this is all correct. It's all in a definition.


garth said…
Any wine can move to vinegar if oxygen gets central the bottle and respond with the alcohol. This happens if a cork is faulty, or if the wine is hold on upright instead of on its side.

acid cigar
Hi Garth, The point is that wine may turn into what is technically called vinegar but that this vinegar isn't necessarily going to be cooking-quality vinegar. Will wine naturally turn into cooking vinegar? Probably not.
itsjustme said…
Actually, rice wine turns into vinegar quiet easily...
Anonymous said…
as a long time professional cook, and long time wine drinker, i can say that wines left out for several weeks do turn to vinegar and the fact of the matter is, this is the exact process that vinegar use to be made hundreds of years ago and still is in smaller type operations.
vinegar made in this manner can be top quality!!! and more often than not is way better than the garbage distilled vinegar you will find in the market. what matters is the quality of the wine that was used to make the vinegar, as all the qualities and flavours of the wine will still be their in your vinegar.
its really quite easy, what ever wine that gets left at the end of the bottle marry into a big bottle that you just let sit on your counter, keep a piece of cheese cloth over the top with a tie around the neck so no bugs get in.
I find the best use for the vinegar is deglazing pans after searing meat or caramelizing onions before making the sauce. but its really great flavour, so if you want to use it for a salad take a few cups and reduce it down to almost syrup consistency, this will concentrate the flavours drastically. at this point you could reintroduce the acidity as it has evaporated of while boiling. a few tablespoons of distilled white vinegar will give the acidity with out distorting the great flavour your vinegar has developed. another way to add to you vinegar is add (good quality!!!!!!!) grape juice, no sweeteners ie, fructose, glucose, corn syrup. saccharine and no preservatives. you can find great ones in the market as sparkling grape juice. this will increase the volume of your vinegar and also give creative control as to what you would like your vinegar to taste like.
happy cooking
Thanks for the AWESOME tips Anonymous! I've also heard that adding a small dose of high-quality vinegar to your jug of vinegar-to-be ensures that it will turn into cooking-quality vinegar. It ensures that mycoderma aceti will be present.
How does one prevent wine from turning into vinegar during the fermentation stage? I made a great batch of vinegar that I use for cooking since I cannot use it as a beverage. However, I do not know how I got a few bottles of great wine (which I lost because I did not add an acid blend prior to bottling) and the unbottled wine turned into vinegar...
Apostle— Are you making wine at home and looking for tips for completing a successful fermentation? I'm not a winemaker, but I'm pretty sure that wine stops fermenting on its own once the yeasts have converted all of the sugar to alcohol. Also, vinegar is not created through the fermentation process. Vinegar is created when particular bacterias infect a wine—for better or worse, depending on how it turns out! Thanks for the question.
ver said…
i left a crock of strained plum juice in my garage and it bubbled along for 3 weeks, then a wine person said "add yeast" so i did and then, a few more weeks kind of bubbling, then it stabilized. I tasted it yesterday and it tasted pretty strong, sharp. Not as Id expectawine. So i think it went from wine to vinegar. you are saying exposure to air causes vinegar-ization, so i guess that was what happened

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