In a little more than 10 years, balsamic vinegar has gone from utter obscurity to great renown, from the precious stocks of families in Modena, Italy, to American supermarket shelves. That's less time than it takes to make a batch of it at its dark, viscous, deliciously sweet and mellow best.
The Italian name "balsamic" derives from the aromatic quality of the vinegar, whose sudden rise to popularity is an element in the explosion of interest in regional Italian food products like risotto, extra-virgin olive oil and porcini mushrooms. The vinegar's sweet flavor has added to its appeal.
Traditional, intensely rich balsamic vinegar, as it has been made in Modena in north central Italy for hundreds of years, is the
result of boiling down the sweet juice, or must, of very ripe Trebbiano grapes, then aging the vinegar for a decade or more in a succession of progressively smaller barrels made of aromatic woods like chestnut, locust and cherry.
The mystique of the barrels persists, even though most of the balsamic vinegar sold in America consists of doctored vinegar that has never been in a barrel.
Some top-quality balsamic vinegar is imported for about $100 for a hand-blown flask of 100 milliliters, but when a recipe for salad dressing calls for one-third cup of balsamic vinegar, it's not talking about the $100 kind.
Most of the supply on the American market is mass-produced and sells for as little as $3 for a half-liter. It is made in factories to meet a demand that went from zero in 1977, when Chuck Williams, founder of Williams-Sonoma in San Francisco introduced it to the American market, to several million bottles a year currently, importers say.
To show the difference between traditional aged balsamic vinegar and the more commercial versions, the New York chapter of the Women's Culinary Alliance held a tasting at the Palio Restaurant.
Eight vinegars were sampled, ranging from those selling for less than 20 cents an ounce to others costing $25 an ounce.
They were divided into three groups: lowest commercial grade, mid-range and top quality. Philip Teverow, director of product development for the Manhattan food store Dean & DeLuca, has visited balsamic vinegar producers in Italy and led the tasting.
The vinegars ranged from thin, harsh and slightly sweet products to
intensely rich, smooth and syrupy ones of great distinction.
Without the guarantee of a three-year-old consortium of traditional producers in Italy, founded to identify top products, anything can go into the bottle and sometimes does.
These cheap analogues, as Mr. Teverow described them, are made in giant stainless-steel tanks like those used in fermenting white wine. The vinegar can be fabricated almost overnight and colored and sweetened with caramel.
In the tasting, the mass-market vinegar aged four years was considered superior to the unaged kinds.
Some mass-market balsamic vinegar of better quality has a portion of the genuine aged product mixed with good red-wine vinegar.
The 12-year-old Fini in the tasting, sold at the Williams-Sonoma stores around the country, had much of the balance and complexity without the viscosity of the traditional products.
Some producers in Modena, like Fini -- which greatly increased production several years ago -- insist that their balsamic vinegars aged five to 15 years are made in traditional fashion. But some experts are doubtful.
"The cost of making it, the time it takes and the amount they are capable of making eliminates any possibility that we're talking about the real traditional balsamic vinegar," said Darrell Corti, owner of Corti Brothers in Sacramento, which imports only the costly traditional kind.
In "The New Basics Cookbook" (Workman Publishing, 1989), Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins detail the traditional barrel-aging method of making balsamic vinegar, stating that "it is unique to the area around Modena" and "the finished vinegar must be at least six years old."
"Modena is meaningless now," said Lou Todaro, an importer. "Does it make any difference where it's made if it's made commercially? It's all geared for the American market because it's sweet."
Lorna Sass, a food historian attending the tasting, observed, "Knowing what is being sent over here, the Italians must wonder what we're all raving about."