by John Wood
Balsamic, or Balsamico, is different from wine vinegar in that it is made from the cooked and concentrated grape juice, called ‘mosto cotto’. Most balsamic made today is made primarily from Trebbiano grapes, which grow in the area where it is made - the Emilia-Romagna. They have a neutral flavor and nice acidity, which combine to make them a great base for vinegar.
The grapes are harvested in Autumn, and after being pressed and strained, they are cooked down and concentrated. Traditionally, this would be done in copper cauldrons over a wood fire. While the best producers still swear on the importance of having a wood fire for flavor, most balsamic made today is done in stainless steal vats over gas fire.
Concentrating grape juice has ancient Roman roots, and was a great way to preserve not only the grape juice but other fruits as well - like pears, quince, and underripe figs. These ‘fruit mustards’ (mostarda) are still made today and bear the root word coming from grapes - must.
Once the grape juice has been concentrated, two things happen. First, special yeasts (not regular wine yeasts) convert some of the sugars into alcohol. Next, bacteria convert the alcohol into acid, primarily acetic acid. These take place in casks. Traditionally, casks are a type of family heirloom. They are all unique and after decades, or even hundreds of years of use sometimes, they take on their own life. They are passed down from generation to generation. Sometimes people will give a child a gift of a cask, which they will keep for the duration of their life. Cask making and fixing is a craft in and of itself.
The balsamic casks are different than wine casks - they have a hole in the top that allows for oxygen to enter, which is necessary for making vinegar. They keep the casks in their attics, and as a result, the balsamic slowly evaporates with time - getting thicker and thicker.
Traditionally, there is a batch of balsamic made every year. There is a succession of casks, increasingly smaller. During the colder months of December, the balsamic gets really clear as the particles left in suspension from the acetobacteria start to precipitate. It is during this time that each batch is drained to top off the next smaller cask and fill to the previous year’s levels. When the vinegar is deemed ready to consume, sometimes after a couple decades, a small amount is drained before topping off.
As you can imagine, real balsamic was always considered a rare gift. The last thing one would do is put it in a pot and boil it to make some kind of ‘balsamic glaze’. Until the 70s, balsamic was never produced for commerce - it was just tradition. Really, it is too expensive and laborious to mass produce in the traditional way. It is always a little sad for me to see 100 year old balsamic for sale, as I imagine someone had probably hit hard times and was forced to sell off a family heirloom.
Sometimes you see a bottle of balsamic going for $300 or so and people are confused as to why it would cost so much. Really, the question is why does it cost so little. It is much more involved than wine, and a bottle of real balsamic goes a long way. You just use a little here and there - with some nice cheese or even gelato for example. Getting good balsamic in the USA is very hard, as good balsamic is rarely made in the quantities necessary for exporting.
I am pretty skeptical of any balsamic that is being sold commercially, especially in the USA, but I do enjoy balsamic and even if it is not the best in the world, there is some good balsamic available. We sell two types - one more modestly priced and one more expensive. I find both to be of good value, even if not quite the same as getting gifted balsamic by someone who spent 50+ years caring for it. Every “foody” should at least try some expensive balsamic once in their lifetime - it is truly incomparable.