Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Product of the month: Balsamic Vinegars

A variety of bottles labeled Balsamic Vinegar can be found today in most grocery stores. However, there is balsamic vinegar and then there is "Balsamic Vinegar". One need not be a connoisseur to tell the difference because the difference in taste is quite obvious.

The Production Process

The region of Emilia-Romagna (in central Italy about mid way between Milan and Florence), and the towns of Modena and Reggio are the most notable production areas. And in recent history, the term balsamic refers to the specialty vinegars aged in wood which come from this region.

The prized Balsamico Tradizionale is very much like a fine wine. It is generally produced from Trebbiano grapes (which are picked and then often left in the sun for further ripening to increase the sugar level). These are crushed and pressed into a juice (called "must") and then simmered in open pots for 24-30 hours. This unfermented juice is cooled, allowed to settle and then placed in the first of a series of barrels to age. The vinegar first goes through alcoholic fermentation and then acetic oxidation. In other words, the sugars turn into alcohol which turns into acid which converts the liquid into vinegar.

The barrel is filled only to 66-75% capacity so further evaporation and condensation occurs. After one year, the vinegar is transferred to a smaller barrel, for further oxidation, and so it continues yearly. Each barrel is of a different type of wood which imparts certain subtleties of flavors to the vinegar. The barrels most commonly used to impart flavor are oak, ash, juniper, mulberry, chestnut and cherry.

Unlike wine barrels these are stored in attics rather than cellars as the heat is beneficial to the process.

A minimum of 12 years of aging is required by law in order to be sold as balsamic tradizionale. Although 20-30 years aging is not uncommon in Modena.

Obviously, this is a time intensive process and therefore can become very costly. Also, the yield is approximately 30 gallons of balsamic vinegar from 800 gallons of grape must. This explains the reason for small quantities costing so much.

Grades And Types Of Balsamic Vinegars

Of course, as is to be expected, there are many "commercialized" versions available. Some of these have wine vinegar or caramel added to enhance the taste. Others, basically follow the traditional method but shorten the aging. These are more reasonably priced and are marketed for every day use sometimes under the name "condimenti".

The most popular type termed "industriale" and usually labeled "aceto balsamico di Modena" are generally a blend of cooked grape must and wine vinegar. These tend to be more acidic and are therefore best suited to blending into stews, soups, etc.

After having said all of this, let us return to the supermarket shelf where a full two-thirds of the brands are "imitation" balsamic vinegars that have nothing in common with Modena, Reggio, or the traditional balsamic vinegar. These are basically wine vinegar with added sugar and artificial flavors and colors.

Again, your best guides will be your own taste and budget. But generally speaking, a fine tradizionale, to use sparingly, is wonderful to have on hand for special presentations, while a good quality condimento is excellent for every day use.

Our online store offers an extensive selection of fine balsamic vinegars of different types and price ranges. Simply stroll through the Vinegars Aisle to view our selections.

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