March 14, 2013 / Food & Wine
Modena, Emilia-Romagna
balsamico3Everyone in Modena is an expert on balsamic vinegar, just as everyone in Boston is an expert on baseball. Taxi drivers, waiters, hoteliers all have an opinion they are ready to share.

And one thing they all confirm? The balsamic vinegar you buy in the grocery store is often wine vinegar and a little caramel. Check the label. If the first ingredient is aceto di vino (wine vinegar), put it back on the shelf.

Traditional, authentic balsamic is made with the mosto (must) of grape only, preferably with certified Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes. Only traditionally made balsamic will earn the D.O.P. certification (Denominazione di Origine Protetta), and must be bottled in the distinctive Giugiaro bottle with the official seal of quality.

balsamico4The must spends its first two years in a barrel (smaller than a wine barrel). Every year some of the must is moved to a smaller barrel and the first barrel is topped off with new must. The centuries old, cherry, oak, chestnut, mulberry, or juniper wood wine barrels that are used get ever smaller as the years pass.

After twelve, twenty-five, or even seventy-five years, the balsamico is ready to be judged on look (the color must be dark brown, dense and shiny), smell (the aroma must have a string acidity and intensity), taste (the flavor must be full bore, harmonious, with no sign of mold). The score received from the five master judges must be high enough; otherwise, it’s back to the barrel for a while longer.

The real stuff is not cheap (50 euros and up)… save the cheap bottle for cooking. The taxi driver swears that 25-year-old balsamic isn’t any better than twelve-year-old, but it’s all a matter of taste and pocketbook. A drop of top shelf balsamic exploding on your tongue is nirvana. Add a morsel of pecorino, a slice of pear or a strawberry and your life will change.



Sharri Whiting

by Sharri Whiting

Sharri writes about food, wine and international travel from Umbria, where she and her husband grow olives. In addition to articles, she writes a blog,  UmbriaBella. Her app, Olive Oil IQ is a portable encyclopedia for foodies and culinary travelers (iTunes & Android). Follow her on Twitter: @umbriabella and @oliveoiliq. Facebook:, and

7 Responses to “Balsamico…”

  1. I learned about balsamic vinegar at a cooking class in Italy in 1990 and have been trying to educate everyone ever since. Not always received ‘with thanks’! How nice that now I can have the authentic information to pass on to doubtful family and friends. Thank you.

  2. Angela Finch

    Thank you for your article. I have often wondered what balsamic vinegar was made of. I am sure I have never tasted the real deal but even the lesser ones are very dramatic and I do love it as a starter with olive oil and home-baked bread. (Is that considered good taste in Italy?)

  3. Like Virginia (above) I’m often met with smirks and looks of “just go away” when I try to explain about balsamico as it’s made and used in Italy. So I’m passing the article around.

    Thank you!

  4. Joy Huffines

    Just one taste of the “real thing” will be enough to convince you. What they are passing off as balsamico in shops in the US is a shame. I agree… palate can not yet tell the difference between a 12 and a 25 yr bottle, but my pocketbook sure can! :-)

  5. I enjoyed reading this article after visiting my family in Modena, Emilia-Romagna last October, 2012. During my visit, my relatives showed their barrels of aging balsamico that was aging since 1965 and not yet opened! There were additional barrels aging from every year since 1965 as well. I was so impressed with the taste of authentic balsamic vinegar, almost like a sweet syrup on cheese and fruit while I was there.

  6. Great Note, Sharri. A lot of info on an item that is very confusing.

  7. Sharri,
    Grazie for the great info and clarification of balsamico. So true, when you do taste “the real thing”, no comparison!


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