Balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico) is a type of vinegar originating from Italy, with world wide popularity, it’s a treasure on the shelves of kitchens, is highly valued by modern chefs, and consumed by gourmet food lovers. Balsamic vinegar is a slightly sweet, dark, richly flavoured vinegar used to enhance salad dressings, marinades, and sauces. It can be reduced to a glaze and drizzled over your sembikiya strawberries, stirred into a risotto, or tossed with Brussels sprouts or red onions to let its sugars caramelize in the oven.
Originally, traditional balsamic vinegar (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale), was made from a reduction of cooked white Trebbiano grape juice, and was used as a condiment. It has been produced in Modena and Reggio Emilia since the Middle Ages, being mentioned in a document dated circa 1046. Historians also note it was appreciated in the ‘House of Este’ during the Renaissance.
The Two Main Types
1.*Traditional “authentic” balsamic vinegars:
Made only with one ingredient — “grape must” (in Italian, “mosto”), the sweet juice of freshly pressed grapes — that is boiled to a concentrate, fermented and acidified, and aged for 12 to 25 years or longer in wood barrels. A highly crafted product, traditional balsamic vinegar is produced in small batches. It is sweet, tart, dark, syrupy, and expensive. You will only find this seriously pricy vinegar in a specialty store or online.
2. Modern “commercial” balsamic vinegars:
What you will likely find at your local grocery store, they combine concentrated grape must with wine vinegar to speed up the acidification process. This vinegar is typically aged from 2 months to 3 years in large oak barrels.
*Authentic barrel aged Italian balsamic vinegars must be aged to the minimum of 12 years in wood casks (barrels). If the “balsamic” is aged under 12 years then according to Italian standards it can NOT be labeled or sold as balsamic vinegar in Italy. Traditional balsamic vinegar is aged for a minimum of 12 years in a series of successively smaller wooden barrels, each made from a different type of wood — oak, juniper, mulberry, ash, cherry, and chestnut.
Italy produces the world’s supply of balsamic vinegar, but it has been estimated that as high as 90% of the balsamic production “can not” be sold as “balsamic vinegar” in the country, all because of the lack of ageing. Furthermore, if the bottle label does not contain the age of the balsamic then in most cases it is just red wine vinegar with some additive to make it sweet and thick.
The Truth About “Ageing”
The age of a balsamic is exactly that; how long the cooked grape must have been aged in wood casks. This is not to be confused with terms referring to the “age” of the wood barrels. The label may say “Barrel Aged”, but unless you are interested in consuming the wood, the age of the barrel is meaningless. All true barrel aged Italian balsamic vinegars are aged in a battery of conditioned wood casks. Viscosity of 12 year-aged balsamic should be very similar to water. Viscosity of 18 year-aged balsamic should be similar to olive oil (lightly coat the sides of a cup), but not thick like Hershey’s chocolate syrup.
Italians are very proud of their balsamic productions so for those with refined tastes, rest assured, if it is aged properly this information will be provided on the bottle. Each season some of the vinegar is pulled from the smallest barrel to be bottled, and then the vinegar in that barrel is replenished from vinegar in the next larger barrel, and so on up the line of barrels. Given the effort it takes to make traditional balsamic vinegar, it’s no wonder that the production volume is low!
Ready to Try Real Italian Balsamic?
We have over 11 different varieties of this special condiment produced in Modena Italy since the middle ages. Have questions? All are invited to check out our full selection of true Italian balsamic’s in our physical store at The Little Shop in Brisbane. Visit here for wholesale enquiries, our product catalogue and more.