Balsamic Vinegar can only be produced in Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy. The process of making it begins by cooking Trebbiano grape juice. This cooking reduces the water content of the juice, turning it into a syrup called must. The must is then poured into the first wooden barrel of a Solera series, mixed with an older Balsamic vinegar batch to begin the acetification process. Each year 50% of the vinegar is transferred down the line to a slightly smaller barrel, along the way acquiring some of the flavors of the different woods. The only approved woods are oak, cherry, chestnut, mulberry, acacia, juniper, and ash.
Commercial balsamics are made by blending traditional balsamic with simple red wine vinegar. Basically, the higher the ratio of traditional to red wine yields a higher rank. However there are many other factors, including the quality of the wine vinegar and the age of the traditional, that affect the ranking of a commercial balsamic. A "0 leaf" balsamic might be 95% red wine vinegar with a splash of traditional and some caramel coloring to give it a dark color. A "1 leaf" is much better than a "0 leaf" and is the prefect balsamic for making a salad dressing recipe.
At the "2 leaf" level, the sweetness of the traditional Balsamic begins to overpower the tartness of the red wine vinegar. A "2 leaf" may be too sweet for some people's tastes when used in a salad dressing. "2 leaf" Balsamics are better for use in marinades, or as a drizzle over finished dishes. A "3 leaf" is an even sweeter product - and twice the price of a "2 leaf". Its richness makes it a perfect condiment for fish, lamb or beef; either in a gravy or sauce or drizzled straight out of the bottle. A "4 leaf" is syrupy sweet with only a hint of vinegar acid. This specialty item is used as a dessert topping, drizzled over ice cream or cake. In Modena it is popular to drizzle it over Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese as a dessert too.
Before the advent of the leaf system, there was a lot of confusion about Balsamic Vinegar. It can be very confusing staring at a shelf with $5 bottles sitting right next to $20 bottles. As we all know, price is not always an indication of quality, so be sure to look for the leaves!
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena can enhance the flavour of every recipe. From hors d'oeuvre, to main courses and side dishes or fruit: it is appreciated on everything and, according to the use, you'll have to take care to choose the right one. Here are our suggestions, with recipes prepared basing on the classification system used by Acetum.