There are many brands and styles of balsamic vinegar. Some are cheap but the good ones are very expensive and when you understand the work that goes into producing them, you will understand why.
To make Traditional Balsamic vinegar, juice from the white Trebbian grapes (called must) is simmered in copper kettles over wood fires for hours. The water evaporates, intensifying the flavor of the must. This must is then added to a large wooden barrel filled with previously aged balsamic vinegar where it slowly ferments.
Over a period of years, the must is transfered to smaller and smaller barrels which also contain older balsamic vinegar. The younger vinegar is added to the older vinegar which is subject to evaporation and the process goes on and on for at least 12 years until the vinegar is in the smallest barrel which holds 10 liters of vinegar.
Now you can purchase from a selection of Traditional and non-Traditional Balsamic Vinegars both in local markets and online. You can find 6 yr, 12 yr, 20 yr, 30 yr and 50 yr old aged Balsamic Vinegars from a couple of the top producers in Italy.
We recommend you start with your favorite local markets that specialize in high end gourmet products. At local establishments you are often invited to sample balsamic vinegars from different years and compare for yourself which one fits your taste and wallet.
If you know what you want and are looking for a better price, you can usually find one online.
To be a "Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena" it has to be produced in Modena and follow the process described above and regulated by the Consortium of the Producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. The vinegar is designated DOC or Denominazione di orgine controllata numbered and sealed with a Seal of Guarantee.
Non-Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is a blend of red wine vinegar and the must from a traditional balsamic vinegar. It may be aged but most times is not. It varies from inexpensive to somewhat expensive depending on the new ranking it receives by the Balsamic Vinegar Consortium (CTAB), and independant goverining body.
Adopted in 2002, this new certification, created by the Italian Association of Tasters for Balsamic Vinegar of Mondea (AIB), is voluntary and does not have the backing of all the best quality producers. It may take years for them to all come aboard but when it does, it will be a great way to measure balsamic vinegar qualities.
The Four Leaf Quality Certification:
|0 Leaf = 95% red wine vinegar with a splash of traditional and some caramel coloring.|
1 leaf = light in flavor and consistency, a sweet and zesty vinegar ideal for salad dressings and everyday use
|2 leaves = round and spirited, brisk yet vibrantly balanced. This lightly concentrated vinegar is suitable for marinades and steamed vegetables|
|3 leaves = smooth, full-bodied taste and a polished finish with tangy accents. This syrupy, full-bodied vinegar is often used for roasted meats and fish, and in sauces|
|4 leaves = Syrupy sweet with complex flavors and a heady aroma; Used for special dishes, with fresh fruit or on ice cream and certain specialty cheeses like Parmesan.|