There are two basic types of balsamic: the highly prized, DOP-regulated, aceto balsamico tradizionale, or traditional balsamic vinegar—and then there’s everything else.
Much like the olive oil market, the world of balsamic vinegar has been so adulterated that what most consider balsamic vinegar has nothing in common with the real thing. To understand what differentiates the daunting number of balsamics that line market shelves is a complicated and difficult task that should begin at the top. Aceto balsamico tradizionale is the pinnacle of all vinegars: it’s produced by hand in small quantities, using methods that are hundreds of years old, has the consistency of maple syrup and can cost anywhere from $150 to $400 for a 3.4 ounce bottle.
Because aceto balsamico tradizionale is the only DOP-regulated balsamic, the varieties of unregulated vinegars sold as balsamic are often commercial, inferior products—which is reflected in their taste.
While there are outstanding non-DOP balsamic vinegars, both aged and young, vetting these from the rest is only possible if you understand the
techniques used to make balsamic’s golden fleece—aceto balsamico tradizionale.
“The product of an elaborate, prolonged, inspired handiwork or, as some might say, a miracle of man,” is how Burton Anderson describes aceto balsamico tradizionale in Treasures of the Italian Table. With a lustrous mahogany hue and velvety smooth flavors redolent of plums and cherries (often with a smoky or spicy tang on the finish), traditional balsamic is made in only two places in Italy—the northern Italian provinces of Modena and Reggio nell’Emilia.
In order to bear the name aceto balsamico tradizionale, every aspect of its creation, from grape to bottle, is carefully regulated by DOP standards. This vinegar undergoes a lengthy transformation, starting as unfermented juice pressed from indigenous white Trebbiano grapes (although Lambrusco and other varietals are sometimes used), which is simmered in large, copper cauldrons for about 24 to 42 hours. This concentrated syrup, known as mosto cotto, is aged in a series of five barrels of varying sizes and types of wood known as a batteria (the wood can range from acacia, cherry, oak, chestnut, mulberry, ash and sometimes juniper). Fitted with large openings that are covered with loosely woven fabric, which allow oxygen to concentrate the must, the five barrels of a batteria range from large to small, reflecting the concentration and length of time the vinegar has been reducing.
During the minimum 12 years DOP balsamic must age, fluctuations in temperature improve the quality of the vinegar, so the barrels are kept in upper attic spaces, or in a shed-like room known as an acetaia. It is important to understand that balsamic doesn’t “age” in the same way wine does. Where a single vintage of wine ages in barrels and bottles, a balsamic’s age refers to the length of time the vinegar maker, or acetaio, has worked with a blend; not the age of the contents in a bottle.
For instance, as the vinegar becomes concentrated over time, the content of each barrel must be replenished (topped up) to prevent solidification. This task begins with the smallest and most concentrated barrel in the batteria being filled with younger vinegar from the next largest barrel, and so on, down the line to the largest barrel, which is the youngest and the least concentrated. This barrel is filled with an addition of freshly cooked must. The process is repeated yearly, until the contents of the smallest barrel reach the desired age and flavor. These barrels hold the prize; it is this vinegar that goes to market—but only if it passes rigorous taste and purity tests.
To keep competition fair, each producer is allotted a specific number of bottles of aceto balsamico tradizionale that they can sell, which is indicated by a numbered tag around the bottle’s neck. Bottles from Modena are characteristically bulb-shaped, while bottles used in Reggio nell’Emilia are bell-shaped. Colored caps designate age: a red cap denotes a vinegar aged at least twelve years, while a gold gap honors a vinegar of twenty-five years or more (known respectfully as il patriarca).
The technique for rendering balsamic has been developed over hundreds of years. But the nouvelle cuisine craze that dominated the culinary scene in the 1980s was a catalyst for curious chefs to áá experiment with rare and exotic ingredients. The novelty, complex flavors and versatility of aceto balsamico made it an overnight success. The public’s love for the sweet and tart vinegar seemed insatiable, creating a demand that aceto balsamico tradizionale—being costly, limited in production and intended for selective use in the kitchen—couldn’t meet. This generated a huge market for industrialized, inexpensive copies that were no more than grape must mixed with cider or red wine vinegar, sugar and artificial coloring.
Once a rare condiment scarcely known even to Italians outside of its place of origin, balsamic vinegar is now a staple in American pantries. From inexpensive, mass-produced supermarket varieties to expensive artisanal vinegars, variations of non-DOP balsamic have completely infiltrated American cuisine.
Seeing the increased interest in affordable balsamic as a niche in the market, and in reaction to the mass production of inferior vinegars, some acetai began to develop vinegars that follow, albeit loosely, many of the canons of aceto balsamico tradizionale. To increase volume and lower costs without sacrificing quality, they experimented with different wood varieties, decreased the number of barrels in the batteria and aged the vinegar for less than the prescribed twelve-year minimum. These vinegars, known as aceto balsamico condimento—typically exported as Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, although some are produced outside of Modena or Reggio nell’Emilia—range in quality from exceptional to ordinary, and average in price from $20 to $60 a bottle.
In 1998, a consortium was instituted to protect the standards and production of these vinegars. Producers also developed labels that differentiate the age and quality of a particular condimento and how it should be used. For instance, many producers display a label with a chef’s toque, and one to four vine leaves on their bottles. One leaf denotes a young and assertive vinegar that would be perfect for a vinaigrette, while a four-leaf condimento has more depth and is the closest of all the varieties to aceto balsamico tradizionale; similarly, it can be drizzled on shards of cheese, complement robust grilled meats and roasted game, or add an earthy note to fresh strawberries.
Luca Bombarda, the President of Fini Modena, which produces and exports both aceto balsamico tradizionale and aceto balsamico condimento, is a member of both consortia; he and others are currently working to obtain DOP status for the condimento vinegar. “Exploring new techniques in the production of aceto balsamico has given our vinegar makers the opportunity to experiment with new methodologies in the artistry of this ancient vinegar,” says Bombarda. “My objective is to educate the consumer about our balsamico.”
Purchasing either a tradizionale or a condimento requires understanding the nuances that differentiate these vinegars. “The key is to know how to enjoy both types of vinegar,” he says. “Aceto balsamico tradizionale is delicate, silky and fruity; I like to enjoy it as a sauce on excellent quality vanilla ice cream, while a good four-leaf condimento complements the briny flavors of shellfish.”
by Brette Jackson