Handmade vinegar from Languedoc: Laurent Faure, from vineyard to bottle

Laurent Faure, 31, is one of the very few vinegar masters in France. He installed his craft-workshop in an old cellar, in his native village near Narbonne. He takes us into his world, where he grows his own grapes and sells his supplies to the winegrowers of Languedoc.

You come from a family of Aude winegrowers and you make vinegar. How ironic!

Laurent Faure : It is true that the vineyard growers have a rather complicated relationship with vinegar. And yet, the ultimate stage of wine is vinegar! Enonologists must constantly fight against acetic bacteria which, naturally, transform grape juice into vinegar. I’m doing exactly the opposite. I spend my days pampering bacteria so they can grow, prosper and do their great work. In the Aude, some winemakers themselves produce some vinegar barrels for their personal consumption. Traditionally, it is used to accompany the cassoulet or freginate, a dish based on white beans and pieces of pork.

Is France a country of vinegar?

L.F.: It was. In the interwar period, there were many small vinegar manufacturers. Just around Orléans, we had 300. François Mitterrand’s own maternal grandfather, who lived in Jarnac, in Charentes, was a wine-maker. But now, the job and the know-how are lost. Today, the overwhelming majority of vinegar consumed in France is produced industrially, using an extremely efficient process that takes less than 24 hours. All over the nation, there may only be six or seven of us left making really handcrafted vinegar.

You are a statistician by training. How does this relate with vinegar master?

L.F.: It doesn't at all, in any way ! My first vinegar trials were in 2009, while I was still a student at Ensae Paristech. The tests were pretty conclusive, according to my relatives who were my guinea pigs. My passion for viticulture and gastronomy, and my desire to go back home to the South of France, took care of the rest. Five years ago, I started my vinegar workshop, Granhota. It is located in an old cellar in Coursan, my hometown, near Narbonne.

You own your own vines. Is your vinegar exclusively made from them?

L.F.: No, not at all. For wine vinegars, I buy from winegrowers in Languedoc, choosing wines with a good alcoholic content, which I will mature in oak barrels. My vines are only used for balsamic vinegar—in order to make balsamic, you need unfermented grape juice, freshly harvested. This must be cooked very slowly for several days to concentrate the juices. Then, it will age in barrels, under roofs of tiles heated by the sun. It’s a slow reduction process: to get one litre (0.26 gallons) of balsamic, you need seven kilos (2.2 pounds) of grapes. In Occitanie, all conditions are met to make excellent vinegar. We have the vines and the heat.

To make handmade vinegar, you don’t have to be in a hurry…

L.F.: For sure! Acetic bacteria need heat to work. Between November and March, when the temperature drops below 15°C (59°F), almost nothing happens in the drums. Summer, on the other hand, when it’s over 40°C (104°F) under the rooftops, that’s another story. Bacteria then work at a frenetic rate, and it is necessary to taste, analyze, and make assemblies constantly. To make wine vinegar—flavored with fruits, rare pepper, spices, Corbiere saffron–it takes two years. And for balsamic, it takes a lot more. Up to twelve years, according to Modena’s ancestral recipe! For the moment, I am marketing a balsamic assembly, coming only from grapes, but with the help of a wine vinegar. For traditional 12-year-old balsamic, you’re going to have to wait a little longer.