The history and facts about balsamic vinegar are a mystery to many people. Many US consumers think balsamic vinegar is a new relatively product, having only entered the marketplace about twenty years ago. In truth, balsamic vinegar has been made in Europe, and specifically Italy, for centuries. During a recent trip to Reggio Emilia in Italy, and a private tour of Acetaia Dodi, I learned about the fascinating process of the production of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar.
How does standard balsamic vinegar differ from “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar”? In the United States, balsamic vinegar which is mass produced and sold in supermarkets has virtually no minimum aging. There can be one drop in the bottle which has been aged longer, allowing the label to state that the vinegar has been aged for 10 years, 25 years, or longer. This explains how an “aged” balsamic vinegar can be sold for a few dollars for an 8 oz jar. The cost of the glass jar, packaging, and distribution is more than the cost of the vinegar. Balsamic vinegar which has “50 years” or “100 years” should be closely examined. In many, if not all cases, the words on the label are terribly misleading.
In Italy, only balsamic vinegar which has been barrel aged and is tasted and approved by a consortium can be called “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar”. There are forty producers of this exquisite balsamic vinegar, and together they produce only 23,000 bottles for the entire world consumption per year. The largest producer, Acetaia Dodi, produces 9,000 of the annual 23,000 bottles.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar has three labels, which indicate the quality of the vinegar: red, silver and gold, with the gold being the most prestigious designation. Every barrel must be tasted and rated by the consortium before bottling occurs. Once tasted and certified for a label designation, the consortium bottles the vinegar. Producers are not allowed to bottle Traditional Balsamic Vinegar. All the vinegar from the forty producers is bottled in the exact same bottles.
Each label designation indicates a minimum number of years of barrel aging, though this is not printed on the bottles. In fact, when balsamic vinegar is produced the traditional way, each bottle contains traces of vinegar that dates back 100 years or more. Acetaia Dodi, the largest producer, uses a small amount of vinegar from their original barrel from 1891 in every barrel of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar they produce.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is aged in barrels made of different types of wood including Oak, Chestnut, and Cherry, with some of the barrels dating back to the 1800’s. All Traditional Balsamic Vinegar must age in at least three types of wood barrels, each imparting a different flavor profile to the vinegar, and in some cases, the vinegar comes into contact with 25 different wood barrels. Every barrel must be numbered and certified for the type of wood and history of the barrel.
The barrels are surprisingly small, nothing like the large barrels used to age wine. The largest barrels can easily be carried in the arms of one person and the smallest are only about one gallon. The vinegar starts its aging process in the largest of the barrels, and is then transferred from barrel to barrel, each one smaller than the last, until the right flavor profile is created and the vinegar has been barrel aged for at least 12 years and up to 25 years. High quality vinegar such as Traditional Balsamic Vinegar thickens naturally and is never cooked in order to thicken the consistency.
Traditional Balsamic vinegar should be used sparingly. Only a few drops are needed to add a memorable touch to almost any dish. There are 500 drops in a 100ml bottle.
Use Gold Label Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Reggio Emilia sparingly with your finest aged cheeses, foie gras and truffles, and to finish a great meal. Add an astonishing and memorable touch to a variety of desserts such as custard cream, chocolate, ice cream, and fruits of the forest or enjoy as an elixir at the end of your meal, sipping it from a spoon or a small glass. Silver label is a marvelous addition to mayonnaise and sauces for meat and fish. It is perfect for cold pasta or rice salads and with foie gras. It is also ideal with fully-flavored mature cheeses such as Permigiano Reggiano. As a cooking ingredient, it is a tasty companion for filet steaks and is a precious ally when making risottos, especially those made with vegetables or scampi. The most “vinegary” of the three Traditional Balsamic Vinegars, the Crimson Label is perfect straight from the bottle on fish, carpaccio, raw vegetables and in marinades. The best chefs use it in their cooking juices when preparing game, poultry and fish.