Unlike any other vinegar, velvety, dark brown balsamic is both sweet and tart, a complex flavor profile. Its uniqueness comes from the fact that it is made from unfermented grape must instead of wine, and is aged in five different woods, the barrels of which are [ideally] at least half a century old. As it ages, the vinegar evolves from a fluid vinegar to a syrup-like consistency: A 50-year-old will resemble molasses in its color and thickness, and at that age has become a rare condiment, meted out with a medicine dropper to accent fine plates of food or great Parmigiano-Reggiano. There are five types of balsamic vinegars:
- Tradizionale and Condimento balsamics are made in Modena and Reggio-Emilia using artisan methods established in the Renaissance and dating back to the Middle Ages. Production of tradizionale is strictly monitored by a consortium. Condimentos are made using the same techniques but are not submitted to the consortium for evaluation (there is a separate condiment consortium that does certify quality condimentos). These magnificent gourmet products are costly and costlier, and used to accent foods; tradizionales are also drunk like rare Ports. They are labeled Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale or Aceto Balsamico Condimento. To be assured of buying authentic balsamic vinegar, look for the seals of the tradizionale and condimento Consorzios. An authentic balsamic made in Modena will have the code API MO; one made in the Reggio Emilia province will have the code API RE.
- Industriale balsamics are mass-produced brands made in Italy. They use commercial processes, but still employ cooked grape must (the pressed juice of wine grapes that has not yet fermented) and are aged at least three years. Those that are made in the area of Modena and Reggio Emilia are labeled Aceto Balsamico di Modena. Use the AIB four-leaf ranking to guide your purchases.
- Imitation balsamics can be made anywhere and are generally cider vinegar that has been colored and flavored to approximate the real thing. They range in price and quality, and are best used for cooking and salad dressing.
- Other balsamics. Some U.S. producers of fine olive oil and vinegar are also making balsamics using artisanal methods. They don’t fall into tradizionale, condimento or industriale classifications, but they are good products.