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.