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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:

 

Overview

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 What is considered to be the first historical reference is in 1046: It is recorded that a well-known vinegar, laudatum acetum, produced in Canossa, a town in the province of Reggio Emilia, was given in a silver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.

How Balsamic Vinegar Is Aged

Aging is the second component that separates balsamic from all other vinegars.

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.

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.