Balsamic Vinegar Overview:
Black as midnight with a heavenly thick consistency and a sweet, pungent taste, Balsamic Vinegar (aceto balsamico) is one of Italy’s star gourmet products. Balsamic vinegar can be used in everything from salad dressings to dessert.
Balsamic vinegar is a distant, distant cousin to ordinary vinegar, which can seem merely thin, watery and lip-puckering in comparison. Used since the Middle Ages (the first reference to it was in the 11th century, when it was considered a miracle cure-all potion) balsamic vinegar has a hallowed place in Italian cuisine, appearing on the menus of fine restaurants throughout the country.
Italian balsamic vinegars are divided into two categories: the simple condimento and the high-grade tradizionale. Largely unregulated and most often used in salads and sauces, condimento vinegars can vary greatly in quality. Cheaper versions may even include sugar or caramel to imitate the flavors of the far more exclusive and sought-after tradizionale.
The labor-intensive tradizionale vinegars can be made in only two places: Modena and Reggio Emilia. In Modena, balsamic vinegar is made and labeled as strictly as wine, and different colors are used on the labels to show how long the vinegar has aged. A red label denotes a vinegar that’s aged for at least 12 years, while a silver label signifies 18 years of aging and a gold label 25 years. Balsamic vinegars that have aged this long can cost as much as €500 per bottle.
Made from the concentrated juice of white grapes (most often, Trebbiano), tradizionale balsamic vinegar is fermented and aged slowly in wooden casks to create its complex, rich flavors and aromas. The process begins with the must (grape juice), which is boiled down to a thick syrup and then stored in wooden barrels. As the fermenting must ages and water evaporates out of it, it is moved to successively smaller barrels made of either oak, cherry, chestnut, mulberry, acacia, juniper, or ash wood (the only approved woods) and is mixed with older balsamic vinegar to add depth of flavor. With time, the taste evolves from the tangy zest of a young vinegar to the sweet, full-bodied character of a true Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale de Reggio Emilia.
Balsamic Vinegar can be drizzled on everything from cheese, rissoto, strawberries, salad to ice cream. Like a fine wine, balsamic vinegar can age well for decades. There are even a few rare bottles up to 150 years old.