Wine tasting? That is so yesterday, haven’t you heard? Balsamic vinegar tasting is all the rage!
On Saturday afternoon, Maxence and I attended such a tasting, organized by the Bastille Slow Food convivium. It was held at Sur Les Quais, a spice and oil store in the covered area of the Marché d’Aligre. I’ve always been very fond of the taste of balsamic vinegar, but the wildly varying prices of what you find in stores are confusing, so I was delighted for the chance to learn more.
Paul Vautrin, the store owner, started out by telling us about balsamic vinegar and its characteristics. It is produced from the must of very mature Trebbiano grapes and aged in a series of barrels of different sizes and woods. He explained how the producer transfers a fraction of the vinegar from the younger barrels into the older barrels every year, which is why the age of a bottle of vinegar is only an average, being a mix of older and younger vinegars. The types of wood the barrels are made in, the quality of the grapes, the initial concentration, and the producer’s savoir-faire all come into play to make (or break) the quality of a balsamic vinegar.
Naturally, industrial companies started making balsamic vinegar too, aging it in steel tanks, cutting it with water and coloring it with brown sugar or caramel. In response, the original small producers have created a consortium and a D.O.C. (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, if you must know) to protect the century-old tradition : only vinegar produced in a small region around the town of Modena can claim to be the traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, their products are made following strict rules and are bottled and boxed in a specific way.
The real thing is very pricy (50 euros for 10 cl), but the taste is so intense and concentrated that just a few drops are sufficient. Of course the scope is pretty wide between the real unique nectar and its crappy over-industrial version, so a good dealer should be able to recommend a producer who may not belong to the consortium but still follows the rules, hence producing a quality product at a somewhat lower price.
The actual tasting began with a small glass of saba, the must (unfermented juice) that is used to make balsamic vinegar. Incredibly sweet and sirupy, with a strong grape taste, saba can be diluted in water or wine to make an excellent drink, or poured on ice-cream or fruit for dessert.
Continue reading »