True Balsamic vinegar is an artisan product from Modena, in Italy. It’s made from grape juice, which is simmered to make a concentrate, and then fermented. Finally it’s matured in barrels for a minimum of 12 years. The barrels used are made from different woods to impart different flavours. The result is a rich, dark and syrupy vinegar, which should be used sparingly – not least because it’s expensive. The real thing will be labelled ‘tradizionale’ and/or marked DOC.
It’s possible to buy cheaper balsamic vinegar. This is made industrially from vinegar and grape juice and is called ‘aceto balsamico di Modena’. This vinegar does not undergo the same ageing process as the artisan product and the flavour is inferior and weaker – but it’s fine for salad dressings and the like.
A typical Italian starter or side dish consists of bread served with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Balsamic vinegar also marries well with fruit, particularly strawberries.
See also Vinegar for more details about how vinegar is made.