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Meet the maker: the man behind Austria's finest vinegar

Since taking over his family pickle business, Erwin Gegenbauer has gone on to make vinegar that's used by some of the world's top chefs.

Published 3 Aug 2018, 19:00 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 16:26 BST
They call Erwin Gegenbauer the 'Vinegar Pope' as it's said he makes the best vinegar in ...

They call Erwin Gegenbauer the 'Vinegar Pope' as it's said he makes the best vinegar in the world.

Photograph by Andreas Pessenlehner

They call Erwin Gegenbauer the 'Vinegar Pope' as it's said he makes the best vinegar in the world. And his church? A former brickworks in Vienna, which is both his home and where he creates his various vinegars, oils, apple juice and cider. His elixirs have been used by chefs such as Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Ferran Adrià is said to have made a sorbet out of the sherry-like Noble Sour PX.

Wiener Essig Brauerei ('Viennese Vinegar Brewery') is in the heart of the city's working-class 10th district, and was previously the Gegenbauer family's sauerkraut factory. "My grandfather came here in 1929. The 1930s were very poor and sauerkraut — which is full of vitamin C — was important because we didn't have any fresh fruit or vegetables," Erwin says.

Like many of Vienna's sauerkraut producers, Erwin's parents had branched out into pickles by the time he took over in 1992. "We were producing pickles with various additives and I was asking myself, 'Why am I producing this?' Those additives have associations with cancer and other health issues. So I stopped."

Having already begun dabbling in turning wine into vinegar, Erwin turned his hobby into a job. Now the old cellar vaults are packed with glass balloons and demijohns full of vinegar, sediment on the bottom, quietly ageing. Up on the roof, barrels of balsamic vinegar sit alongside four bee colonies. When the sun shines, the sugar leeches out of the wood and the bees feed on it, producing balsamic honey.

Erwin began selling his goods at Vienna's Naschmarkt. The vinegar sold, and soon the range expanded to includes apple balsamic, raspberry, and asparagus vinegar. "I try to preserve natural flavour with its own acidity. So I take white asparagus, press it, ferment it to get asparagus wine, then on the second fermentation it becomes asparagus vinegar."

It's a job that requires patience and dedication, but Erwin clearly loves what he does. "Before I was living off my products. Now I'm living with my products."

Where to try Austrian vinegar

In Vienna, you can buy Gegenbauer vinegars at Erwin's stall in the Naschmarkt (stand 111-112) or from the shop on the ground floor of his house/workshop.

Four of the best Austrian vinegars to try

1. Sauvignon Blanc Privat
Erwin has been maturing a stock of 50 litres of this 'noble sour' in his private cellar since 2004. Technically not a vinegar because it contains less than the requisite 6% acid, it has notes of chestnut, walnut and dried fruit. €55 (£48).

2. Makkurozu black rice and wheat vinegar
Velvet-smooth, with balsamic notes of chicory, coffee, cocoa and malt. Rich in natural amino acids and minerals, it can even be drunk as a cordial, mixed with cold water. €29.55 (£26).

3. La Guinelle Banyuls vinegar
A limited-edition vinegar made from wine that's over a decade old. Produced in southwest France, it's available in the UK from The Vinegar Shed, established by food writer Andy Harris, who sells his own homemade products too. £24.

4. 1995 Bordeaux Cult Vinegar
This unpasteurised, 'live' vinegar containing living pro-bacterial cultures, is made from wine from the Fronsac appellation in Bordeaux. £15.

Read more stories from our Meet the Maker series

Published in Issue 2 of National Geographic Traveller Food

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