Friday, December 4, 2009

Back Chatter On Balsamic Vinegar

Passionate opinions abound and there is a wide and bewildering range of prices and qualities.  Sadly too there are balsamic vinegars that do not live up to their names.

An understanding of the process will both assist and protect you from making expensive mistakes and will guide you to 'your' perfect choice.

Join Back Chat as we delve into the mysteries of this centuries old food product and find out what our ancestors already knew eons ago.   Do leave a comment on Back Chat or email me at .  I would love to hear about any close encounters of the 'balsamic' kind.

And remember  'CAVEAT EMPTOR' -  BUYER BEWARE.  There are unscrupulous people out there. 

The Lure of Balsamic Vinegar

The  ‘King’ of vinegars is undoubtedly ‘Balsamic’.  To understand why, one must taste it!   It is a complex, ancient food product and was used for purifying and for the digestion.   Balsamic, meaning ‘health giving’, is a vinegar that is aged for between 10 and 30 years in wooden casks.

Making ‘Tradizionale’ balsamic vinegar involves a lengthy time-consuming process, resulting in a very expensive product, non-tradizionale balsamic has flourished in the market place.


There are two ways of producing Balsamic vinegar; the artisan process and the industrial process (factory made).

The artisan process results in a far more expensive product.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is made in the hills near Modena, Italy, and the Consortium of Producers of Traditional Balsamic vinegar strictly controls its production and export.   The area that is affected is in the Northern Italian region of Emilia between the cities of Modena and Reggio Emilia.

The making of authentic traditional balsamic vinegar follows a precise set of time-honoured rules.  It is made from selected Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes.

The must obtained from soft pressing of grapes is cooked on direct heat in steel vats for several hours before alcoholic fermentation begins.   This continues until the volume is reduced up to a half or a third.

Must is new wine; grape juice before or during fermentation; any juice or liquor undergoing or prepared for undergoing alcoholic fermentation.

Must for Balsamic vinegar is more valuable and expensive than the must used for wine production.

The concentrated grape must is filtered and cooled and then very slowly transformed through a complex aging process.  Saba or Sapa, a sweet and syrupy concentrate, is obtained from this process.

The liquid passes through a battery of a minimum of 5 casks and up to a maximum of 10-12 casks.   All 12 casks are normally made of different woods.   Each wood gives a different aroma to the product.   Typical woods are oak, chestnut, cherry, juniper and mulberry and range from 60  to 20 litres.   The casks have a hole on the top, which is closed by means of a river stone, that does not entirely seal the cask, thus allowing vinegar evaporation, which reduces its acetic degree.

New casks are not suitable to start production of traditional balsamic vinegar.  They need to be initiated for at least a year.   In this way the wood becomes impregnated with vinegar bacteria.
The cooked must is then put in a first barrel, filled to three-quarters only, where it rests for a year, during which time, it is attacked by the environment’s bacterial flora, and slowly and progressively turns to vinegar, a process that will continue for several years.   It is best affected by a climate that is very cold in winter and very hot in summer and always humid.

At the end of the year, a part of the contents of the first barrel, which will have by then been concentrated and enriched by the aromas released by the barrel wood, will be transferred to a smaller barrel, possibly of a different kind of wood and the first barrel will again be filled with newly cooked must of the last vintage year.  And so the process continues for five years or seven until the last and smallest barrel of the so-called ‘batteria’ (battery or set) is filled again.   The process may continue up to 30 years to produce truly great balsamic vinegar.

The timing of each topping up of the smaller barrels with balsemico decanted from the larger ones is determined by the sugar content as well as the personal preference and artistry of each particular producer.  There is no rushing the process for the finest results.

The perfectly fermented must, rests in the last barrels for a very long time, during which time the liquid becomes concentrated, gaining the aromas of the different woods of the barrels into which it has been placed.  It gains a brilliant shiny dark brown colour and begins the miraculous balance that determines its quality.   The balance between extreme sweetness and extreme sharpness.   A polarity of tastes that only the better productions manage to achieve.

Traditional Balsamic vinegar marries well with olive oil to make a Balsamic vinaigrette.

All this is Balsamic vinegar.  In order to distinguish it from Balsamic vinegar of Modena, it is called Traditional Balsamic Vinegar.

Balsamic vinegar is always tasted in drops.   It can be taken straight or natural, in a teaspoon as a digestive. Use it with discretion.   It is excellent in a salad dressing used as the Italians do with a good olive oil on leafy green salads.   Superb drizzled over Pecorino or Parmesan cheese with Carpaccio, nice on a spring onions and sautéed potato omelette, on room temperature rare roast beef.   Try drenching strawberries with sugar and tossing with a few drops of Balsamic Vinegar  . It is difficult to find contraindications for a food product that is already so balanced and rich in itself.


COLOUR   Dark brown, but full of warm light.

DENSITY   A fluid and syrup-like consistency.

FRAGRANCE   Distinct, complex, sharp and pleasantly acid.

FLAVOUR   Sweet and sour in perfect proportion with a hint of different flavourings indicating different manufacturers.


This is not led lovingly and fastidiously through a period of transformation.   It is particularly important to check information on less expensive bottles, to ensure that they do contain matured vinegar.   Some mixtures sold as balsamic-style vinegar are no more than ordinary wine vinegars with flavouring and colouring added.

Smaller manufacturers, because of the high standard set by the Controllers of the Consortium of Traditional vinegars, do not quite meet all the requirements and have to resort to names such as ‘condimento’ (dressing) or other equivalent names for their excellent product.

You will find an enormous range of prices.  On supermarket shelves you may find a half litre of balsamic vinegar for less than R100.  In specialized food shops, you may occasionally come across tiny 100ml (1/10th of a litre) for as much as R500 or more.  This enormous price difference demonstrates the wide range of qualities available between Industrial Balsamic Vinegar and the top branded Traditional Balsamic Vinegars.

Industrial Balsamic can be quite expensive, so do be warned.

Industrial Balsamics are best used for marinades and flavourings where less subtlety is required, and can be simmered for a short time without damaging or affecting their individuality.

The Balsamic trail is a fascinating one!  Enjoy your quest and sample where you can, this will enhance your understanding of the 'King' of Vinegars.


BP said...

Thanks for this very informative article. I had no idea the process was so lengthy! Are there any local producers of 'traditional' balsamic? Would be interesting to find out.

Leslie Back - Back Chat said...

There are several South African vinegar producers that import balsamic vinegar from Modena Italy and bottle it in South Africa. This will reduce cost and allow them to use their own labels.
But is always emphasised that the vinegar itself is not local.
Cecil Vinegar, Willow Creek and Staffords are among those who employ this process.