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What is Balsamic Vinegar

Albertina Roca
  |   July 21, 2016   |  

Dark and intensely flavored Balsamic Vinegar is one of the oldest and most prized condiments in Italy and around the world. Complex, concentrated, thick and syrupy, a fine balsamic can have a transformative effect on many dishes, from savory to sweet.

The history of this vinegar goes back as far as the 11th century: as he was passing through Reggio Emilia on the way to his coronation, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III received a silver bottle of balsamic as a gift.

Traditional balsamic vinegar or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale (and keep the distinction of traditional in mind) is an Italian vinegar made from cooked grape must (grape juice), which is simmered until it is concentrated, and then left to ferment and matured in a progression of different, progressively smaller wooden barrels for several years – at least 12, but some are aged up to 100 years. The wood for the barrels changes, from oak to chestnut, cherry, juniper and mulberry, each infusing the vinegar with its distinct complexity and palette of flavors and aromas.

Each year the vinegar from the smallest barrel gets bottled, and the each barrel is filled up with the vinegar from the larger cask in the sequence. That leaves the bigger barrel to be filled with the new yield. They’re never completely emptied, and the vinegar becomes denser and more concentrated as the years go by due to the evaporation from the porous barrel walls. What this means is the smaller cask will yield a much more concentrated, thicker balsamic than the largest barrels in the sequence.

Where does balsamic vinegar come from?

Traditional balsamic vinegar can only be made in two Italian provinces: Reggio Emilia and Modena, and the label will always designate the origin as Aceto Balsamic di Reggio Emilia or Aceto Balsamico di Modena. It’s typically made with Trebbiano grapes, but sometimes also Lambrusco grapes.

How is balsamic vinegar graded?

The production is overseen by an agency or consortium either from Modena or Reggio Emilia (depending where the balsamic comes from), which supervises that certain methods and standards are met, in order to guarantee the highest quality to anything that bears the Aceto Balsamico label. A panel of five expert tasters asseses each batch of balsamico prior to bottling, making sure it meets taste, smell and visual standards. Then, and only then, is the coveted, individually numbered seal attached to the bottle.

Traditional Balsamic is labeled according to the grade it’s given by the tasting panel. In Reggio Emilia, there are three grades: affinato or “fine” which corresponds to a 12 year old balsamic, vecchio or “old” for 15-20 year vintage and extra vecchio or “extra old” for a 20-25 year old balsamic. The color of the cap distinguishes the grade: red for affinato, silver for vecchio and gold for extra vecchio. In Modena, there are two grades, also distinguished with a different colored cap: affinato is capped in white, while extra vecchio in gold. Only authentic, true traditional balsamic vinegar can bear these labels, so when you buy balsamic vinegar, always look for the color of the caps.

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Author

Albertina Roca

Meet Albertina, a seasoned food writing wordsmith and marketing creative split between the sizzling vibes of Miami and the charming streets of Buenos Aires. With a solid 20 years in the traditional and digital advertising world for the gourmet food industry, she’s mastered the art of making words as mouthwatering as the dishes they describe. She’s proudly been part of the Gourmet Food Store family (and its brands) since its very beginnings, and what a fun, flavor-packed journey it has been!

Her journey began at Rutgers College, where she studied in History and Political Science, with a minor in English Lit. She honed her craft at The Miami Ad School in South Beach, where creativity and copy collided under the South Florida Sun. From the neon streets of South Beach to the tango beats of Buenos Aires, her pen dances with the rhythm of whatever gastronomic tales she gets to write at the time.

Currently savoring life in Buenos Aires, Argentina, she’s bilingual in English and Spanish, an avid reader, and cheese addict.

Her writing? Seasoned with creativity, spiced with experience, and garnished with a dash of wit.

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