The high street is full of products with the word balsamic, from glazes to 100 year old balsamic vinegars which range from £2 to £200. To better understand what drives price and quality of balsamic vinegar, it is important to understand its provenance and production process.
Balsamic vinegar is produced in the province of Modena in the North of Italy in small quantities and through a long aging process. The consortium of Italian balsamic vinegar producers has set a very detailed set of rules and parameters which need to be follow in order to obtain their stamp of approval. This includes the use of local wine grapes such as Lambrusco and Trebbiano. Balsamic vinegar is a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO or DOP in Italian) which confirms its provenance. Traditional balsamic vinegar bottles also contain a numbered seal which allows to trace the origin of the product and monitor production volumes which tend to be very small.
Taste and aroma
Balsamic vinegar has a dark colour, a dense syrupy texture, a complex aromatic profile often referred to as the bouquet and a balanced sweet-sour taste.
The pressing and cooking of the grape must happens at the same time. It is subsequently cooked in an open recipient for several hours to start the concentration process. This leads to the aging process which takes places in wood barrels of decreasing sizes, starting from the largest one initially and ending with the smallest which will be used to extract a small quantity of balsamic vinegar. 12 to 25 years are necessary for the product to reach the appropriate profile to qualify for the DOP certification. As a rule of thumb, only about 10% of the liquid remains after 25 years and this is one of the main drivers of the price of aged balsamic vinegars.
The 12 year-old balsamic vinegar is referred to as "traditionale" and is best suited for warm dishes such as a caponata, risotto, salads vegetables or ice cream and strawberries. The 25 year-old balsamic vinegar referred to as "extra vecchio" is ideal on parmigiano reggiano, meat and fish dishes. In all cases, only a few drops may be sufficient to enhance your dish.
A popular Christmas gift
Similarly to fine wines, aged balsamic vinegars, through its complex and long production process, has naturally become a popular Christmas present. A product which used to be confined to the Italian aristocracy has become more democratised. Its shelf life also means that it can be enjoyed over a long period of time with friends and family and used as a rare ingredient for those special occasions.