Balsamico Tradizionale

by admin on August 3, 2013

If you’re familiar with our shop, you’ve no doubt tasted our traditional aged balsamic vinegar. Sweet with a thick, syrupy texture, it is one of our most popular items — meant to be savored in small doses, and nothing like any vinegar you can buy in the supermarket.

Our customers often ask if we make this balsamic ourselves and, while we’d love to take credit, the truth is that vinegar like this is traditionally only made in two cities in Italy — Reggio-Emilia and Modena. Ours is made in Modena by a small producer that we’ve been working with since we opened in 1994.

What makes traditional balsamic vinegar unique is the way it’s aged. The vinegar starts as grape must — a mixture of juice, skins, seeds and stems, typically from Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes. It’s cooked down until it reaches a certain consistency and then allowed to ferment, essentially becoming wine.

Over time, the alcohol converts to acid, and the vinegar begins its journey through the “batteria,” a series of barrels of decreasing size that are made of different types of wood such as chestnut, acacia and cherry. Each year, the vinegar is moved into the next barrel in the series. Because the vinegar tends to concentrate and evaporate with age (hence its thick sweetness), the barrels are often topped off with vinegar from different vintages.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is thus a very complex blend that picks up the nuances of the different barrels as it ages. This process lasts a minimum of 12 years, but that’s not all: To be certified a true “aceto balsamico tradizionale” the vinegar must be approved by a consortium of Italian tasters that meets twice a month to rank the region’s top vinegars.

Again, not something you’d typically find in a supermarket. And in fact, many of the balsamics you do find in the supermarket have been industrially produced, made with coloring or thickeners to emulate the qualities that a true balsamico achieves over time.

Because the producer we work with does not bring this vinegar before the Italian consortium, in Italy, it could not be classified as a true “tradizionale.” But in the U.S. we are allowed to say it is. We also carry a “baby” version of this vinegar, made in the same style but aged for a shorter period of time. It has a pleasant tartness that is perfect for vinaigrettes.

Our traditional balsamic vinegar, which we estimate has been aged for about 19 years, is so concentrated and sweet it can be drizzled on fresh berries or even ice cream — one restaurant here in St. Helena makes a counterintuitive but delicious “sundae” consisting of a scoop of chocolate gelato drizzled with balsamic vinegar and a scoop of vanilla gelato drizzled with olive oil.

But traditionally, balsamic vinegar is served with a chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano, the aged Italian cow’s milk cheese that comes from the same region as balsamico tradizionale. Its rich flavor and saltiness are the perfect foil for the vinegar’s sweetness, and the pairing is a classic intersection of tradition, place and terroir.