Balsamic Vinegar, the Mystery, the Facts
Unlike any other vinegar, velvety, dark brown balsamic is both sweet and tart, a complex flavor profile. Its uniqueness comes from the fact that it is made from unfermented grape must instead of wine, and is aged in five different woods, the barrels of which are ideally at least half a century old. As it ages, the vinegar evolves from a fluid vinegar to a syrup-like consistency: A 50-year-old will resemble molasses in its color and thickness, and at that age has become a rare condiment, meted out with a medicine dropper to accent fine plates of food or great Parmigiano-Reggiano. There are five types of balsamic vinegars:
- Tradizionale and Condimento balsamics are made in Modena and Reggio-Emilia using artisan methods established in the Renaissance and dating back to the Middle Ages. Production of tradizionale is strictly monitored by a consortium. Condimentos are made using the same techniques but rare not submitted to the consortium for evaluation (there is a separate condimento consortium that does certify quality condimentos). These magnificent gourmet products are costly and costlier, and used to accent foods; tradizionales are also drunk like rare Ports. They are labeled Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale or Aceto Balsamico Condimento. To be assured of buying authentic balsamic vinegar, look for the seals of the tradizionale and condimento Consorzios. An authentic balsamic made in Modena will have the code API MO; one made in the Reggio Emilia province will have the code API RE.
- Industriale balsamics are mass-produced brands made in Italy. They use commercial processes, but still employ cooked grape must (the pressed juice of wine grapes that has not yet fermented) and are aged at least three years. Those that are made in the area of Modena and Reggio Emilia are labeled Aceto Balsamico di Modena. Use the AIB four-leaf ranking to guide your purchases.
- Imitation balsamics can be made anywhere and are generally cider vinegar that has been colored and flavored to approximate the real thing. They range in price and quality, and are best used for cooking and salad dressing.
- Other balsamics. Some U.S. producers of fine olive oil and vinegar are also making balsamics using artisanal methods. They don’t fall into tradizionale, condimento or industriale classifications, but they are good products.
Twenty-five years ago, balsamics were just getting known in the U.S.; tradizionales weren’t even available for purchase but had to be given as gifts from Italian friends. Today we are enriched with great products available at specialty stores and online; but sadly, most people have had only the imitation product, which is most of what is sold in the nation’s supermarkets. Given that balsamic vinegar is one of the great pleasures of the food world, seeking out an authentic bottle is well worth the time and expense.
Gleaming dark brown in color with an intensely fruity aroma and an exquisite sweet-and-tart flavor, authentic aceto balsamico—balsamic vinegar—is a specialty of the Emilia-Romagna* region of northern Italy. It is made specifically in the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia and is often credited as originating in the city of Modena, but the truth may be lost to history. Today it is a protected with a D.O.P. designation—only vinegar made in the region can be called balsamic.
While sherry vinegar may be the queen, balsamic is truly the king of vinegars. No other vinegar improves with age and, at 75 years or older, can command more than $500 for a 3.5-ounce bottle. The true balsamic, called tradizionale, is as hard to find as a rare wine (and costlier on a per-ounce basis).
Sadly, most of the balsamic that is sold is imitation, so most people have never experienced the glories of the real thing.
The History of Balsamic Vinegar
Balsamic vinegar—or what is believed to be balsamic, as the written record is sparse—has been made since at least the 11th century. What is considered to be the first historical reference is in 1046: It is recorded that a well-known vinegar, laudatum acetum, produced in Canossa, a town in the province of Reggio Emilia, was given in a silver bottle as a present by the Marquis Bonifacio to the soon-to-be Holy Roman Emperor Enrico III of Franconia, when he passed through the area en route to Rome.
It is assumed, but can’t be verified, that the laudatum acetum was the same product we recognize as balsamic. It also was indicated in records that begin in the 1500s, via the writings of the poet Ludovico Ariosto (author of Orlando Furioso and native of Reggio Emilia) at the Estensi court. “Black vinegar” was mentioned as a mix of sour vinegar and saba (sweetened vinegar), with a typical bitter-sweet flavor.
In the 16th century, when the Estensi court moved to Modena, the first evidences of balsamic vinegar appear. Documents reveal it to have qualities that distinguish it from common vinegar and describe how to produce it, specifying that must from Trebbiano grapes must be left to mellow in an attic for several years. By the 1700s, it was recognized rare and valuable enough to be used as a special occasion vinegar and served to VIPs.
In its early days, balsamic vinegar was available only to the nobility and the artisans who made it—themselves aristocrats. It was believed to be a miracle cure for everything from a sore throat to labor pains (the name balsamic, from balm, is derived from its purported medicinal properties, including its use as a protection against the plague). Made from local grapes and aged in local woods, for centuries it was made privately on individual estates and farmsteads, and only in the last few decades has become a commercial product, made for sale to others. Prior to then, balsamic was produced for family use only. Barrels passed from one generation to the next, often aging for 50 to 200 years or more. This “legacy” created an unimaginably rich, molasses-thick syrup served in droplets on Parmesan cheese and strawberries. Kept in locked cupboards and dispensed by the dropperful, from the beginning the precious black liquid was often part of a bride’s dowry—and it still is. Even the “youngsters,” just 12 or 25 years of age, are coveted.
We can revel in it—but where was balsamic vinegar during the generations of our parents and grandparents?
Unless yours were Italian, balsamic was not even on the radar screen. As a homemade product, it was not commercially available in the U.S. until the 1970s. At that time, several factors—the demand for fine foods from Europe based on Americans’ travels abroad, the turn of focus to the refined cuisine of northern Italy over the immigrant fare of the south, and the migration of great chefs to America—brought balsamic vinegar to the consciousness of fine chefs and gourmets and caused a burgeoning demand that led to commercial production of balsamic vinegar.
By the 1980s, newspapers nationwide were publishing recipes for home cooks: Anyone could make chicken breasts with balsamic vinegar or glaze salmon with balsamic. Not the 100-year tradizionale, mind you, but with the commercial brands that had also become popular in Italy, and were being imported as well as replicated domestically.
The good stuff did arrive, too. By the 1990s, lovers of fine food had become aware that Parmigiano-Reggiano was not something to be grated over pasta, but perhaps the world’s greatest cheese, to be enjoyed with drops of rare balsamic vinegar; and that anything—even melon and prosciutto—could be accorded new excitement with a few drops of good balsamic.
How Balsamic Vinegar Is Made
Start With High Sugar Content Grapes
Balsamic vinegar is an aged reduction of white sweet grapes that are boiled to a syrup and then aged for 12 years or longer using the solera system. This involves transferring the vinegar along a line of barrels of decreasing size each year. In the case of balsamic vinegar, the barrels are made of different woods.
As with most vinegar, true aceto balsamico starts out as must (unfermented juice). Unique from other vinegars, local sweet white grapes with a high sugar content—Lambrusco, Trebbiano and often other varietals like Spergola, used in small quantities. The grapes are grown on the hillsides surrounding Modena—are harvested as late as possible, and often left in the sun for further ripening to increase the sugar level.
The grapes are then crushed and pressed, and the must is allowed to sit until fermentation is about to begin. Thus, unlike other vinegars, balsamic does not come from wine, but from grape juice that has never been allowed to ferment into wine.
At the very start of fermentation, the must is filtered and poured into large, open copper cauldrons.
The must is brought to a boil and slowly simmered over a wood fire. It is cooked until the water content is reduced by an average of one-half. This takes from 24 to 30 hours.
The must is then cooled, allowed to settle and combined with an older balsamic vinegar—or “mother”—that includes various active yeasts and bacteria that assist in turning the juice into acetic acid (vinegar).
How Balsamic Vinegar Is Aged
Aging is the second component that separates balsamic from all other vinegars.
The cooked must is then placed in the first of a series of progressively smaller wooden casks, called the batteria, or barrel battery, to age. The largest barrel can be 60 liters or more, moving down progressively to 50, 40, 30, 24, 20, 16 and 13 liters to the smallest size, 10 liters.
The batteria can consist of as few as five barrels (three for condimentos) and as many as ten, depending on the taste of the producer. The woods that can be used are acacia, ash, cherry, chestnut, juniper, mulberry, oak and walnut. Tradizionale balsamic must be aged in five of these woods.
The vinegar first goes through alcoholic fermentation and then acetic oxidation. In other words, the sugars turn into alcohol which turns into acid, which converts the liquid into vinegar.
Each year the vinegar is decanted and transferred to different casks of progressively smaller sizes so that it can absorb unique flavors from each of the woods. This is called “topping off,” and takes place in January and February. Because of the topping off, balsamic vinegar will always contain some new vinegar. If an age is marked on the bottle, it refers to the year that the batteria was started.
For the rest of the year, the vinegar is left to age. Each year it reduces in volume through evaporation, concentrating as it ages and resulting in a rich, syrupy viscosity and aromatic bouquet. The barrels are filled to two-thirds to three-quarters capacity, to abet evaporation and condensation.
For years, the vinegar goes through what is called “maturation” in the middle part of the batteria, then enters the aging phase in the last few barrels. The process is the same for an industriale or a condimento, but the aging period is shorter—at least three years for an industriale, six years or longer for condimentos (and fine ones are aged for 12, 15 and 20 years, just like tradizionales). For tradizionales and older condimentos, the ultimate step is decanting into the smallest barrel, where the vinegar rests and matures.
The process of knowing when to transfer the vinegar to the next barrel is knowledge passed on from artisan to artisan through the generations. While today there are some 120 commercial producers of balsamic vinegar, at home the vinegar is made by the women of the household. There, the aging process occurs in the attic of the house, the barn, or, for commercial family ventures, the acetaia (vinegar house). There are 13th-century paintings depicting the batteria in the attic.
The attic was an ideal aging location for traditional balsamic vinegar because of the extreme fluctuations in temperatures in Modena—hot summers and cold winters. Unlike wine, cheese and other products that require consistency of climate (and are aged below the ground in cellars to achieve that consistency), the aging process of balsamic vinegar actually benefits from the alternating summer heat and the winter cold. Heat promotes fermentation and acetification, and cold allows resting and maturation. This “natural chemistry” allows balsamic vinegar to develop and improve for decades, even centuries.
With an evaporation rate of about 10% each year, 100 liters (26.4 gallons) of grape must will become 15 liters (4 gallons) of vinegar after twelve years of aging. In home production, when the flavor is found acceptably intense, the vinegar is sealed in a final small wooden cask. Commercially, it is bottled in glass flasks.
While the quality of the balsamic depends on the quality of the grapes and the length of the aging process, the final flavor depends on the timing of the transfer of the vinegar to the ever-smaller barrels, and the wood from which the barrels are made. These wood types and the stage of the aging in which they are employed influence the aromas of the balsamic vinegar: It is the knowledge and skill of the artisan that ultimately makes the greatest balsamic. As with wine making, vinegar masters aim for particular flavors—a balance of juniper, oak and cherry wood flavors, for example.
White Balsamic Vinegar: Made with the same White Trebbiano Grape Must, White Balsamic undergoes the cooking and barrel aging process of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena however it is not caramelized. The result is a crisp, tart vinegar with a touch of sweetness.