While it may seem that balsamic vinegar is merely an inexpensive salad dressing, ubiquitous in restaurants and supermarket shelves, the truth is quite different. If you don’t check the label, the product you may be getting at your corner store is in fact not balsamic vinegar in the traditional sense. It is instead regular cider vinegar with coloring and sweetener. True balsamic vinegar must come from either Modena or Reggio Emilia in Northern Italy, and its production follows very strict guidelines based on centuries of tradition. If the label doesn’t say Modena or Reggio Emilia, chances are it hasn’t been aged properly or it hasn’t been made with grape must (whole pressed grapes that include the seeds, skin, and stem).
The process by which real
and traditional balsamic vinegar is produced is fascinating. The red and white grapes, which are usually
locally grown because many balsamic producers are self-sufficient, are harvested
in September and October. They are
pressed carefully (not smashed!) and cooked over a direct flame. Even the cooking process is precise and
complex, because first the liquid must be sterilized quickly and then reduced
slowly. This reduction is left to ferment for several weeks. Then the transfer
begins. The balsamic is transferred into barrels of oak, chestnut, cherry, and
other types wood and left to “sleep” for many years. The barrels are open and
as some of the liquid evaporates over time, the vinegar is transferred into a
smaller barrel of a different type to take on the flavors and aromas of many
different woods. The balsamic vinegar is tasted often throughout the aging process
to meet exacting standards. In order to be considered true balsamic vinegar, it
must be aged for at least 12 years! Some
balsamic vinegars are aged for 25 years, by which time the liquid has taken on
a thick syrupy sweetness that pairs with desserts and can even be sipped on its
own to aid digestion.
When the process is complete and the vinegar is ready to be bottled and sold as the delightful condiment we know and love, its age is identified by its label. Young (at least 12 years), medium and old vinegars are labeled differently and each producer in the region can decide how they will label their particular brand. At Fine Taste Club, our balsamic producers, Leonardi, chose seals and coins to identify the ages of their balsamic vinegar. The red label and three coins indicates a younger balsamic, the silver label and four coins indicates a longer aged balsamic and a gold label and five coins identifies the oldest vinegar. The Leonardi farm uses its own grapes and has been producing Modena balsamic vinegar for four centuries.
As balsamic vinegar ages, it
pairs ideally with certain types of foods.
The older it is, the thicker and sweeter it becomes. Young balsamic vinegar is multi-purpose. You can use it to make sauces and marinades,
and of course use it on salads. The
middle-aged balsamic vinegar goes well with steak and drizzled over vegetables.
It can also be added to soups and risottos. The oldest balsamic vinegars can be
drizzled over ice cream or panna cotta, and even taken as an after dinner
drink. They can also be used on rich savory dishes that would benefit from a
burst of sweetness and acid.
Quality balsamic vinegars are produced outside of Italy, but the gold standard is Modena and Reggio Emilia. The climate (steamy summers and chilly winters) seems to suit the aging process to a tee and the traditions have been perfected over 100s of years. So the next time you are thinking of adding balsamic vinegar to your salad or meal, read the label before you start drizzling. And if grape must isn’t on the ingredient list and its age is not identified on the proprietary label, buyer beware.