Traditional balsamic vinegar (aka Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale in Italian) is definitely not your ordinary vinegar. In fact, at $50 and up per small bottle, you could call it a kind of liquid gold, only deep red black in color. Read on or watch our video from our tour to Modena below which explains a little as to why.
I know you can find so-called balsamic vinegars in your local grocery store at a fraction of that price. But I assure you that it is not the real McCoy. It is usually wine vinegar and a little caramel or may be a reduction. If the first ingredient listed is aceto di vino, you have an imitation so put it back on the shelf.
Authentic traditional balsamic is made through a laborious and lengthy process with the must of grapes only, ideally from trebbiano and lambrusco grapes. Only if it is made in the traditional method in the delineated district of Modena (home of Luciano Pavaroti) or Reggio Emilia can it earn the D.O.P. certification as the real stuff. And it must be bottled in the distinctive Giugiaro bottle with the official seal.
The must spends the first two years in a small barrel. Every year some of the must is moved to an even smaller barrel and the first barrel is topped off with new must. The centuries old barrels are made of cherry, oak, chestnut, mulberry or juniper wood and they get physically smaller as each year passes. The photo on the right is of a traditional acetaia, the traditional word for the area where the balsamico is aged.
After twelve, twenty-five or even seventy-five years, the balsamico is ready to be judged on look (dark brown and shiny), smell (strong intense acidity) and taste (harmonious with no sign of mold). The five master judges must give it a high enough score; otherwise back to the barrel for additional aging.
Even though true balsamico is expensive, it is worth it and just like a good perfume, a little dab will do. It can be used on pecorino, fruit, even ice cream for a sublime taste experience. You can of course find it imported in specialty stores in North America (prices range from $50-$800 depending on the aging and quality seal), but you may save a few bucks by buying a bottle the next time you passing through a duty-free shop in Italy or locally in Modena or Reggio Emilia.