Here in the United States, balsamic vinegar has been gaining popularity for years. It can be found in vinaigrette dressings, marinades, sauces, pan reductions, and all sorts of recipes and culinary techniques. Over the last 20 or so years, balsamic vinegar has indeed become a household term.
But what is balsamic vinegar, and what makes it different?
According to wikipedia, the Italian term balsamico has origins in ancient Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, but it generally means restorative, curative, or balm.
There is some evidence that suggests that balsamic vinegar does have some health benefits and we'll get into that in another blog post, but what really puts balsamic vinegar on the map is it's taste!
Traditional vinegars are produced by a double-fermentation method, where sugars are first fermented to produce ethanol (yes, alcohol), then fermented again to produce acetic acid from that ethanol. The resulting acid is diluted with water to produce the desired vinegar (white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, etc...).
The production of balsamic differs quite a bit. Balsamic vinegar is produced by crushing grapes into grape must, which is basically just crushed grapes, including the juice, seeds, and skins. The grape must is then cooked to the point of caramelization in copper pots over an open wood fire. It is then placed into a series of old wooden barrels to age for at least 12 years, a process known as the Solera method.
This Solera method is truly unique and describes the process used to age the grape must in wooden barrels to produce balsamic vinegar. The barrels are made from all kinds of woods: oak, chestnut, acacia, cherry, mulberry, ash, and juniper. Different producers use different woods in different sequences to produce different flavors!
The Solera method can be a bit complex. Imagine these barrels of different woods arranged from largest to smallest. The largest barrel contains the most recently cooked grape must, and the smallest barrel contains the balsamic that is closest to complete. When the balsamic is ready in the smallest barrel, a portion of it (not all of it) is withdrawn. That portion is then replaced with balsamic from the next larger barrel, which is replaced by balsamic from the next until the largest barrel is reached. Then the largest barrel is topped up with fresh grape must.
You may be asking yourself, why do the barrels get smaller? If you've ever visited a whiskey distillery, you already know the answer. During the aging process, there is a bit of evaporation, which reduces the volume of total product over time. This is what's known as the angel's share, and it also helps to explain why balsamic vinegar is known for it's thick viscosity!
The process described above is how traditional Dark Balsamic Vinegar is produced, but the process for White Balsamic Vinegar is a little different.
White Balsamic Vinegars start out with the same grape must that Dark Balsamics do, but it is mixed with white wine vinegar before the cooking process. The grape must is still cooked - though not for as long as Dark Balsamics - and the grape skins are filtered out prior to barrel aging. The barrels themselves are a little different as well, as White Balsamic Vinegar is aged in new white oak barrels, the Solera process described above is not used, and they are not aged for quite as long. This results in a less complex, thinner, and more tart flavor.
Although traditional Balsamic Vinegar originates from Modena, Italy and the surrounding area, legally speaking it can be made anywhere, thanks to a 2019 court ruling. There are also no real standards on aging. While the traditional Solera method described in this post requires 10-12 years or longer and other traditional methods would require 3 years at a minimum, there are "balsamic" vinegars on supermarket shelves that is produced in a matter of days or months.
Here at The Olive Basket, all of our Balsamic Vinegars are produced in Modena, Italy using traditional Italian Albana, Trebbiano, and Montuni grapes and our Dark Balsamics are made using the Solera method. In addition, our White Balsamics are aged for at least 8-10 years and our Dark Balsamics are aged for at least 12 years.
This is why we can proudly claim that we offer authentic, aged Italian Balsamic Vinegars, and we invite you try them all!