Balsamic Vinegar: More of a Wine Sauce Than a Wine Vinegar

Vinegar is wine. Basically. The type of wine vinegar widely used in most European and North American countries comes from red or white wine and created through the process that takes place when bacteria converts the fermented wine into acetic acid. Exactly why is it that the more you actually know about what goes into your mouth, the less you actually want to put it in your mouth.

All right, I’m not talking about that. Let’s keep it clean.

Balsamic vinegar has been gaining huge ground in the marketplace over standard wine vinegar lately. That could be because true Balsamic Vinegar that comes from Italy is widely regarded as the finest vinegar in all of Italy if not the entire world. Real Italian Balsamic Vinegar comes from a place north of Tuscany called Emilia-Romagna, especially near the towns of Reggio and Modena. Balsamic Vinegar from this region was kept a secret among those in the know-in other words those outside of North America-until the 1980s, when a writer named Marcella Polini initiated its popularity here through constant mention in her popular series of cookbooks. Although the ascension of Balsamic Vinegar in American kitchens grew slowly at first, it veritably exploded in the latter 90s.

What makes Balsamic Vinegar so special? For one thing, although it comes from grapes just like other wine vinegars, there is so little else about it that is similar to traditional vinegar that many users prefer to not to call it vinegar at all, but instead “sauce from wine grapes.” A big of a mouthful, that. Of course, in this case we’re talking about true Balsamic Vinegar from the Emilia-Romagna region. Most Balsamic Vinegar purchased in the US is really nothing more than sweetened and colored red wine vinegar. How can you tell the difference? First tip-off is price. If your bottle of Balsamic Vinegar costs roughly the same as similarly sized bottles on the shelf, it’s highly unlikely you’ve got yourself the real thing there. A small bottle of real Balsamic Vinegar will set you back about as much as the cost of a bottle of a mid-grade fine wine.

No, that’s not a typo. True Emilia-Romagna Balsamic Vinegar is expensive. But there’s a reason. Have you ever been tempted to knock back a bottle of vinegar and drink it down straight? Of course not. Unless you’re a drunk college kid or a contestant on a reality show, who would? But if you have a bottle of real Balsamic Vinegar, you might. That’s because the real stuff is sweet, almost syrupy. In fact, Italians have been known to keep a small glass of Balsamic Vinegar by them during dessert and sip it down like wine. Balsamic Vinegar is also used a flavor dripping over fresh fruit, fish and mushrooms. It is a vital ingredient in certain Italian desserts such as Panna Cotta and Zabaglione.

Another reason for the high cost of real Balsamic Vinegar is the manufacturing process. The fermenting process involves aging the vinegar for a decade or more in order to create a far more lush and mellow liquid than traditional vinegar, or even other high-end vinegars. In fact, the name itself stems from the “balmy” aroma that permeated the locations-usually an attic in a country farmhouse-where the vinegar was made.

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