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Dear Dr. Vinny,
Balsamic vinegar is made of white Trebbiano grape juice. How does it get the dark, inky color?
—Koorosh, Renton, Wash.
If it's real Balsamic, it's all in the aging process. Balsamic vinegar is made from syrup (not wine) that comes from the juice of white grapes (typically Trebbiano, as you mention). This syrup is then fermented and aged slowly in barrels so its flavors become sweet, viscous and concentrated. The oxidation, evaporation, aging and exposure to barrels also turns the color that wonderfully glossy dark brown, and gives it a rich, sweet, pungent flavor.
While balsamic ages (and gradually evaporates), the liquid is transferred to successively smaller casks, becoming more concentrated with each transfer. Sometimes a variety of wood barrels are used so the vinegar can absorb the different flavors. Oak, mulberry, chestnut, cherry, juniper, ash and acacia are the most common.
There are many quality levels of balsamic. The highest is labeled "tradizionale," and is very expensive, sold in tiny bottles and, because it's so concentrated, used in very small amounts (and a little bit goes a long way). The most inexpensive varieties may not be aged in wood at all, being nothing more than ordinary wine vinegar with caramel for coloring and sugar added to mimic the sweetness of better ones. Legally these are not allowed to be called "traditional" or "tradizionale," even if they still say "Aceto Balsamico di Modena".
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