There were ancient writings that noted a liquid much like balsamic called Saba, which came from the Greco, Roman, and Egyptian periods.
Originally Saba was made from Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes but did include other types of grapes from the region. The grapes were cooked until the liquid became thick and reduced to less than 50%. The Saba was primarily used for sweetening just about anything. It was used with meats dried or cooked, wild bird and game, grain dishes, berries, and as a sweetener with other liquids to drink.
At some point Saba became a lost art as war and other cultural influences became more prevalent. Historical evidence seems to indicate the first signs of aged balsamic vinegar began around 1000 AD. It was valued as a prized possession and a special gift just as well-aged balsamic vinegar is today. It was also used in ancient times as a disinfectant and as a perfect elixir for external and internal use. (It is still used today as a digestive.)
The basic process is simple. The grapes are harvested and then cooked down to a "must" (thick almost syrupy liquid) in copper cauldrons. It is then barreled, and here in lies the real secrets of the closely guarded family recipes. It is the type of wood, the aging and transferring of vinegar from barrel to barrel that makes the difference between balsamic vinegars.
Only certain woods like oak, cherry, chestnut, mulberry, acacia, juniper, and ash are used for the barrels. In the beginning there is a mother sauce from which all aged balsamic vinegar begin. A barrel is never completely emptied. There is always a percentage that is left in the original barrel as new balsamic is added to continue the aging process for the newly added younger balsamic vinegar.
Each barrel has a hole to allow for evaporation and for air so that time, change in weather, heat, and cold of the season can work its miracle in the aging and acetification process (the mellowing of the sharp acidic taste). On average the balsamic stays in each barrel for at least a year although that may be part of each families secret recipe. Some balsamic vinegar may remain in some barrels a little longer in the later years to produce heavier notes of certain wooden barrels.
How long it stays in each barrel before being transferred to another barrel and what percentage remains in the original barrel is what gives each balsamic its distinct flavors. We do know that the longer the balsamic stays in the barrel the thicker and sweeter it becomes picking up the nuances of the various woods in the barrels.
The heavier vinegar taste of young balsamic vinegar gives way to a sweeter, syrupy-smooth viscosity. Just a tiny drop of well-aged balsamic vinegar fills the mouth with flavors that are deep and full of mystery that is almost indescribable. It's a taste that should be enjoyed slowly and remembered for the moment.
Points to Remember
Remember that excellent quality aged balsamic vinegar (12 years and older) should not be governed by price. Like a fine wine know the producer of the balsamic vinegar and their reputation, its origins, type of grapes used, any additives such as sugar, is it aged in wood or stainless steel barrels and for how long, any certifications or awards, and age of the balsamic vinegar.
Last but not least on this little check list: does it meet and adhere to the demanding guidelines set by the Consorzio established in the mid-1970's. (The governing body that oversees the production of and sets the quality standards by which all traditional balsamic vinegars are measured) in Modena, Italy.
There is one final misconception regarding balsamic vinegar. Unlike wine, which can age and the complexities change in a bottle; balsamic vinegar stops its aging process. There are no further nuances to pick up from the mother-balsamic vinegar or from the wooden barrels it was stored in. Once it is removed from the barrel and sealed in a glass bottle it will keep for years but will no longer continue the aging process.
Where Can You Purchase Saba online?
You can find classic Saba at ClubSauce.com
A final note
Keep in mind that there are a number of less expensive aged balsamic vinegars on the market that are quite good just as there are a number of less expensive wines. It is a matter of taste and how you plan to use it. Many younger balsamic vinegars are excellent for cooking and salads, older balsamic vinegars for finishing dishes, and well aged balsamic vinegars from twelve years to 150 years for desserts, aperitifs, digestives and for the shear extravagance and pleasure of enjoying a luxurious flavor that only a few have ever had a chance to experience.
This article was written by Jules Silver, webmaster of ClubSauce.com.