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Vinegar, traditionally made in the area around Modena, in Italy, which is matured over many years, and during this period moved from barrel to barrel to absorb wood flavours as it matures. Skills and processes are similar to those used in creating fine wines. The grapes used are mainly the traditional local ones of Trebbiano and Lambtusco.
It takes its name from 'balsamic' - meaning health-giving.
Until its commercialism in the 1960"s it was only made by the well-off families of Modena (who had their own vineyards). It takes at least 12 years to make a good vinegar; and for an exceptional one, many years more. The best has always been extremely valuable, indeed, in the middle-ages it was sometimes listed as part of a lady"s dowry!
The initial liquid is must, which is the soft-pressed juice of grapes, before the wine-making fermentation process begins. This must is cooked in big pans over an open fire until it has reduced to a brown syrup with an intense grape aroma. The fermentation process then begins - the precious liquid is transferred over a period of time from barrels made of different woods.
These woods have to be of approved types, but might include ash, apple, chestnut, juniper, mulberry, oak and pear; each one imparting its own flavour to the precious liquid. Chestnut and oak generally provide the first barrels. For a cheaper vinegar at least five barrels must be used, but more expensive ones might be indulged 10-12 times, becoming progressively smaller. Very expensive vinegar might end up in a barrel containing only two or three litres.
Vinegar is still made by this laborious method and sold labelled as "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale", needless to say it is very expensive. Vinegar thus labelled must by law still be made in a small area around Modena; but cheaper more commonly found commercial varieties, may be made elsewhere, and lack the extreme depth of flavour of the "Tradizionale".
Cheaper bottom-of-the-market brands is now balsamic vinegar blended with wine vinegar to produce a less dense but rich condiment - in this state it can"t be labelled "Tradizionale".