To be true traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, the must (juice) of white grapes, mainly Trebbiano grapes, is cooked and reduced by one half to two-thirds. This is what gives it its dark colour. The sweet and syrupy concentrate is then aged for the first time in a wooden barrel. This is where the vinegar undergoes its first acetic fermentation. In the years that follow, the vinegar will be aged in a series of four to six successively smaller barrels made from various types of wood. This distinguished vinegar will improve over a period of at least twelve years, sometimes, twenty, twenty-five or forty years. So much effort warrants the asking price.
Use a small spoon to taste this exceptional vinegar. Add a few drops on a slightly runny omelette, parmesan, strawberries, vanilla ice cream or in a small glass as the final digestif. Just like a fine wine, you appreciate the balance inherent in true balsamic vinegar, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena.
Unlike wine, balsamic vinegar is not aged in the basement or cellar, but rather in the attics of homes in Modena. Temperature variations, the cold of winter and heat of summer, are essential for the product to become fully mature. After more than 12 years, it will be judged by the serious Consortium of the Producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. If the vinegar makes the grade, it will be bottled in a bottle designed by the consortium which bears the distinctive seal of the product. Only this seal guarantees the product’s authenticity.
Producers in the Reggio Emilia region have their own consortium and unique bottle.
The exorbitant cost of authentic balsamic vinegar, on average $130 for a mini-bottle, means that most of us can only afford the commercial-grade version. Many of these “false” balsamic vinegars are good products with various culinary uses. They are ideal for marinades, salad dressings or to deglaze.
At the centre of the spectrum, some vinegar producers have had success making balsamic vinegar aged in wooden barrels for a shorter period of time. This makes the product much more affordable, between $15 and $20.
What’s in a $5 bottle of balsamic vinegar? It’s made of wine vinegar with added grape must, caramel, often artificial flavours and more. The right mix of vinegar and must does give some commercial-grade balsamic vinegars a taste similar to the traditional version; some brands do have a pleasant taste. Heating and cooking with this type of vinegar is no kitchen crime.
The best of the best, such as prosciutto di Parme (from Parme) or Parmegiano Reggiano, is always more expensive and always imitated. This explains all the commercial clones that often have little in common with traditional balsamic vinegar produced in Modena. No offense to my neighbour’s Baby Duck, but bubbles do not make it champagne.