Balsamic vinegar was virtually unheard of in the US until the 1970s, even though its roots go back to ancient times. Even as early as 1046, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III was given a silver bottle containing this celebrated vinegar while passing through a town on his way to his coronation. The record of this visit is thought to be the first written reference to balsamic vinegar. For centuries this illustrious condiment was known only to those in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and produced only in the provinces of Reggio Emilia —where Henry III was visiting —and neighboring Modena. These regions are still where true balsamic vinegar is made. Balsamic vinegar was treated as a guarded family tradition that existed well outside of commerce, until relatively recently, circa the 1970s. Today, however, I can’t think of a single supermarket I’ve been in that doesn’t have at least one vinegar labeled “balsamic” on its shelves.
Pretty much all of this isn’t true balsamic vinegar, though, unless you’re shelling out at least $75 for a tiny bottle. It’s just imitation balsamic, which is basically cheap wine vinegar with coloring added to it. You see, there are no US standards as to what balsamic vinegar, both the imported and domestically produced ones, actually have to be, so they vary widely in their approximation of the real thing.
Now, not all imitation balsamic is bad, some are quite good, and I am by no means discouraging its use, but it’s not balsamic vinegar. It’s great for certain uses, like a vinaigrette, marinade, or creating a glaze for various meats (things I would never suggest using real balsamic for).
So what is real balsamic vinegar and why does it fetch such a hefty price tag? It all starts out as grapes traditionally Trebbiano, as well as Lambrusco and other lesser-known grape varietals. These grapes are gently crushed, pressed, and passed through a coarse sieve and the juice is left to settle briefly before being transferred to a large open kettle. There the impurities are gently combed away and the remaining juice is simmered between 180º and 195º for 24-42 hours.
Once the juice is reduced to roughly have its original volume, it is then cooled and transferred to holding tanks and eventually barrels, where this cooked grape juice is essentially turned into wine.
The wooden barrels are the key here. Built in decreasing volumes from about 100 to 10 liters, the casks are arranged in a series called a battery. Most producers use a variety of woods, including oak, chestnut, mulberry, ash, cherry, juniper, and sometimes other fruitwoods. Each cask is filled to about 80 percent of its capacity, and porous cloth is draped over the large, square opening. The large opening encourages evaporation, feeds the acetic bacteria which need oxygen to convert alcohol to vinegar, and guarantees a concentrated result over time. The environment is an indispensable aspect of the process. Traditionally, barrels are stored in a clean, drafty attic so the vinegar is exposed to wide fluctuations in temperature (in Emilia-Romagna, often-torrid summers alternate with frigid winters).
Once a year these barrels are toped-up. Starting with the smallest barrel as much of the vinegar as needed is added from the next largest to restore the level of vinegar in the barrel to what it was the previous year. This process continues down the line until the largest barrel is reached. This barrel is topped off with that year’s freshly made cooked wine. The vinegar grows denser as it ages and travels down the series, while the various woods contribute aromatic complexity. The vinegar is eventually drawn from the smallest cask in the battery.
This process can go on for centuries, and in many families, who make balsamic vinegar, it is a tradition to set up a new battery for each son that is born. These families sometimes have batteries going back generations that are still kept up. The vinegar from these ancient batteries is highly prized and can fetch $400 or more for just a tiny bottle.
The taste of this true balsamic is unlike anything you’ve ever had. It’s sweet and sour, thick, like molasses, and, according to the lucky people who have tried it, the taste is absolutely indescribable.