Wine Gone Wild:
Wine Vinegar v. Balsamic Vinegar
There are two varieties of vinegar to get down with here: wine vinegar and traditional balsamic vinegar.
As the name infers, wine vinegar (or, in Frenchy-speak, vinaigre, which means “sour wine”) is made from red or white wine, and it’s encouraging if the label can tell you from which grapes. The traditional process takes up to five months for the air and bacteria to turn the wine sour. Commercial producers have been known to
force-feed air and bacteria, as well as employ high temperatures, to speed up the agitation process, which can complete the conversion in a day. Sure, you have vinegar, but do you really want that on your salad?
Traditional balsamic vinegar, on the other hand, is made from fresh grape juice, or “grape must.” Historically, aceto balsamico tradizionale was a family heirloom in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, specifically the towns of Modena and Reggio Emilia, and it was long considered a digestivo meant for sipping after meals. The grape juice, or must, is cooked at slow temperatures (to avoid caramelization and bitterness) until it is slightly weaker in consistency than maple syrup. It eventually makes its way to wooden barrels, where a bit of the aged heirloom vinegar is mixed with the new. It is transferred to a series of increasingly smaller barrels as it becomes denser, aging for a minimum of 12 years. It is eventually judged by a panel for its quality, and, if it passes the test, is then placed in regulation bottles (whose shape also proves its authenticity), given a registration number, and sealed with a DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) label.
Our pick: Ca’ dal Non traditional balsamic vinegar, aged 25-50 years
That does not discount the value of everyday balsamic vinegar, especially for salad. In fact, most Italians frown upon using traditional balsamic on salads since its syrupy, condensed flavor should play a more prominent role as the “crowning touch” on roasts of meat, grilled radicchio, an omelet, Parmesan risotto, or for dessert on fruit or ice cream. However, there are a lot of imposters out there filling their vinegar with additives to achieve the right flavor and color so this is a prime example of how important it can be to read the ingredients. There should be no mention of extracts, sugars, preservatives, or colorings.
Our pick: Robbins Family Farm everyday balsamic vinegar, aged 18 years
Wine Vinegar Unfortunately, most mainstream supermarkets offer only wine vinegar that is industrially made (with an accelerated aging process). If it’s your only option, however, try a simple rice vinegar (a sweet yet rightfully acidic option) or a champagne vinegar (always reading the labels, of course, for any red flags). In any case, beware of the strong, clear white vinegar variety with a low price tag. Chefs use it to disinfect their sinks! (This is a good reason to buy your vinegar online from trusted producers.)
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar For traditional (and, frankly, expensive) balsamic vinegar, the best thing you can do is go to a store where the staff seems knowledgeable about the product, or go online to a trusted source, like Gustiamo. Usually stores won’t crack open the $200 bottle for a taste (but sometimes they
will–it doesn’t hurt to ask!), so it’s best to have confidence in your vendor.
- Look for the origin markers of MO (Modena) or RE (Reggio Emilia); each town also has a respective bottle shape [in the image above, Modena's is in the middle, flanked by vinegars from Reggio Emilia].
- You should see the word tradizionale on the bottle.
- You should see the government-issued registration number and DOP seal.
- The best vinegars will simply list “grape must” as its sole ingredient. Commercial vinegars are usually made in just a few hours from harsh wine vinegar sweetened with sugar and colored with caramel. There should be no mention of extracts, sugars, preservatives, or colorings.
- If it’s surprisingly cheap, it’s probably not authentic.
- Like olive oil, never keep balsamic vinegar in the refrigerator and store it away from sunlight and high temperatures.
- There is no reason to ever cook traditional balsamic vinegar, unless it’s a quick toss in a pan to mix with some ingredients.
Everyday Balsamic Vinegar Excluding the industrial versions, which can contain caramel and other additives for color and flavor, the best options usually come in either two forms, depending on the producer:
- Grape must that has simply been boiled until it is condensed by about half
- Grape must that has been condensed and is then aged in wooden barrels for six, eight, even 18 years
The important thing is to read the label and make sure there are no additives or sweeteners. Look for an everyday balsamic that comes from a producer of traditional balsamic vinegar since they are not likely to adulterate the process and will have the good stuff on hand to start with. And, since everyday balsamic is relatively inexpensive, you can experiment with a few brands until you find one that you like.
Why is traditional balsamic vinegar so expensive? One word: supply. Only 100,000 bottles of balsamic vinegar from Modena are produced for the world each year. That means 90% of so-called “traditional balsamic vinegar” on store shelves is not authentic.
Are there less expensive alternatives? Yes: condimento and saba. Condimento is balsamic vinegar that has been rejected by the judging panel as “flawed” but the producer would rather sell it than return it to the barrels for further aging (the final product is often a combination of must and wine vinegar). This is in fact a nice alternative for dressing salads because you can avoid the guilt of “wasting” the pricier traditional balsamic on a simple salad, yet it still provides a great flavor. Saba, unlike the traditional balsamic vinegar, is not aged in barrels and is created by boiling the grape must until it is simply reduced and thickened.