balsamic vinegar [ball-sam-ick vin-i-ger] noun
Dark Italian vinegar aged in wooden barrels that has a sweet and sour taste. When combined with strawberries, balsamic vinegar creates a delectable, classic Italian dessert. Both the berries and the balsamic have components that play off one another beautifully, with the vinegar bringing out the sweetness of the fruit.
Traditional aged-balsamic vinegar, usually found in the savory kitchen, is produced in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy and can cost hundreds of dollars. It has been such a revered food that aged barrels used to be handed down as part of wedding dowries. Many of us purchase balsamic vinegar for about $4 a bottle. How can that be? The traditional method takes at least 12 years and involves a rotation of various wooden barrels during the evaporation process, and the vinegar must be made within either the province of Modena or Reggio Emilia (both parts of Emilia-Romagna). On top of that, a panel of experts must approve the bottled delicacy before it can be sold.
In the U.S., all bets are off. As there are no laws in America governing balsamic vinegar production, manufacturers are free to take vinegar (usually a wine vinegar) and color and sweeten it to mimic balsamic and sell it labeled as such. This is the variety that we find in the average grocery store.