In 2017 there’s balsamic vinegar and ‘real balsamic’ vinegar. Real balsamic vinegar will cost you around $7 a gram whereas the balsamic vinegar you buy in the supermarket is available for 10 cents a gram.
In 1046, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III was given a silver bottle containing a celebrated vinegar while passing through a town on his way to his coronation. The record of this visit is thought to be the first written reference to balsamic vinegar, a condiment once known only to those in the Emilia-Romagna region of what is now modern Italy, and produced only in the provinces of Reggio Emilia – where Henry III was visiting – and neighboring Modena. Now that was real balsamic vinegar!
So, why the big price difference you may ask? Real balsamic vinegar begins with ‘grape must’, whole pressed grapes complete with juice, skin, seeds and stems. The ‘must’ comes from sweet white locally grown and late-harvested grapes, usually Lambrusco or Trebbiano varieties. It is cooked over a direct flame until concentrated by roughly half, then left to ferment naturally for up to three weeks, and then matured and further concentrated for a minimum of 12 years in a ‘batteria’, or five or more successively smaller aging barrels. These barrels are made of different types of wood such as oak, chestnut, cherry, juniper, and mulberry, so that the vinegar can take on the complex flavors of the casks.
Once a year the vinegar is bottled from the smallest cask in the sequence. Each cask is then topped up with vinegar from the next cask up, with the largest cask getting filled with the new yield. None of the casks are ever completely drained.
This ageing process is similar to the solera process used for fine sherries, ports, sweet wines, and Spanish brandies. The vinegar gets thicker and more concentrated as it ages because of evaporation that occurs through the walls of the barrels – the vinegar in the smallest barrel will be much thicker and more ‘syrupy’ than the liquid in the successively larger barrels.
Real balsamic vinegar is the granddaddy of balsamic vinegars. To this day it is only made in Reggio Emilia and Modena, Italy, using traditional methods, and production is overseen from beginning to end by a special certification agency.
Sources: Andrew Wheeler is a columnist and author of Eat Britain, a book about the best of British food.