When I was first introduced to balsamic vinegar, I knew it as something to drizzle over a salad, perhaps with some sun dried tomatoes, gorgonzola and other gastro-buzz words that were popular before the world of Anthony Bourdain and celebrity chefs. It was not until our first trip to Emilia Romagna, Italy, though, that we started to learn about tasting balsamic vinegar.
As we learned about real balsamic vinegar, I came to appreciate the thickness and the sweetness of a good aged balsamico. The tastings we did when we first toured Emilia Romagna involved starting with a supermarket quality vinegar, and would move up in quality from there. Each balsamic vinegar tasted a little sweeter than the last, and felt a little thicker on the tongue.
During a recent trip to Modena, we learned that tasting balsamic vinegar involves a whole lot more than that.
We’ve worked with Helena at Yummy Italy before, tasting Italian wines and learning about quality artisan gelato. I knew that Helena is a certified balsamic vinegar taster, which of course, is a thing in Emilia Romagna. When she offered to teach us how to taste balsamic vinegar, I figured it was worth a shot.
I don’t have a very sophisticated palette. Even when it comes to wines, I kind of know what I like and what I don’t like. I mentioned this fact to the wine maker at Corte d’Aibo in the Bologna hills last year. I suggested this lack of sophistication was why I could never become a trained sommelier. He replied that I needed to drink more. He was right. Like anything else, you need to train your palette to understand the differences.
It’s the same with tasting balsamic vinegar. When Helena sat us in a small room, filled with aging vinegars at Acetaia Villa San Donnino, outside of Modena, she started to explain the tasting process to us. I looked at her like she was crazy.
How to Taste Balsamic Vinegar
First, Helena described how to taste. When tasting balsamic vinegar it is important to only use a plastic or ceramic spoon. Any kind of metal spoon will change the flavor of the vinegar. We learned this during our first tasting at La Noce in Modena.
After pouring a bit of balsamic onto the plastic spoon, Helena suggested we put the spoon in our mouth, turn it over and allow the vinegar to dissolve onto the tongue. We were then told to pinch our nose, hold our breath, and just as we were about to swallow, release the nose, breathe in and swallow at the same time.
Perhaps I am getting to know Helena a bit too well, because I looked at her with my sarcastic face that clearly said “really?” Who the heck came up with these convoluted balsamic vinegar tasting steps anyway?
She replied “scientists”. I was sold, so long as science was involved. We practiced the tasting techniques again.
How to Describe the Taste of Balsamic Vinegar
Then, even after this, Helena explained how to describe the taste using a three part tasting criteria. Similar to tasting a wine, tasting balsamic vinegar involves a visual analysis, an olfactory analysis and a taste analysis.
Each of these categories involves a complicated multi-step analysis of the density, viscosity, intensity, persistence, body and acidity. Within each of these descriptors there were five choices, so that when tasting the “harmony” of the vinegar, we were to choose between mature, well balanced, unbalanced, lacking or absent. The amazing thing: this was a truncated version of what the consortium for balsamic vinegar in Modena uses to certify a vinegar as an official DOP product. This was the easier version?
All in, there were thirteen different qualities, each with five rankings. I received a paper with over 65 squares, along with a conclusory category describing the overall sensation. It was overwhelming, much like it was in the earlier days of our wine tasting adventures. I thought, with my unsophisticated palette, there would be no way I could distinguish balsamic vinegars with this level of analysis.
Getting Down to Business – Tasting Balsamic Vinegar
Unlike other balsamic vinegar tastings, we started with balsamico di Modena extra vecchio, or extra old, at least 25 years old. What was kind of funny about this is that Eric and I have already tasted a lot of balsamic vinegar in the last year. But, my friend Mollis was with us on this experience. This was her first time tasting real balsamic vinegar, and she got to start with extra vecchio! Lucky duck.
The 25 year old was our benchmark. We tasted and walked through the complex tasting chart. Helena instructed us to give high marks in each category, as it was after all, the benchmark.
As we walked through the other vinegars and compared them to the 25 year old, I soon realized there was more to high quality balsamic vinegar than sweetness and thickness. That seems too obvious when you start with super market vinegar and move up. By using the benchmark, it was easier to distinguish the complicated layers involved in tasting balsamic vinegar. Instead of just sweetness and thickness, there should be a balance between sweetness and acidity. After all, we were tasting a vinegar, so there should be acidity, not just sweetness.
There is a complexity in analyzing the color and thickness of the vinegar as well. Placing the small jars of balsamic in front of a candle allowed us to see the legs of the vinegar as the jar was swirled. I could have sat there for hours just swirling balsamic in front of the candle.
Although some of the descriptions perhaps were a little too sophisticated for me, I could certainly tell the difference as we walked through several varieties, including a riserva, which was over 120 years old.
As the tasting progressed, my sarcasm gave way to intrigue. I am certainly not ready to become an official balsamic taster, like Helena is, but it was a unique culinary experience.
Traveling to Modena?
Where to Stay in Modena: Get hotel recommendations here.
Learn more: Get the only guide you ever need for Modena, the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to taste the history and tradition of Italy, from Amazon. Or, get a copy of Pellegrino Artusi’s The Art of Eating Well to learn to cook traditional Italian cuisine at home.
Planning a Trip to Emilia Romagna?
Looking for more travel tips on Emilia Romagna, and how to eat the best food in Italy? My book The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to taste the history and tradition of Italy, is available on Amazon now. If you are a NOOK reader, it is also available for download on Barnes and Noble.
More About Our Trip
We were hosted by Yummy Italy and Davide, who provided the balsamic vinegar and the tasting room at his gorgeous Acetaia San Donnino. My yummy sounds and sarcastic comments are, as always, my own. Helena organizes customizable culinary experiences throughout Emilia Romagna.
Amber Hoffman, food and travel writer behind With Husband In Tow, is a recovering attorney and professional eater, with a passion for finding new food and drink destinations. She lives with her husband, Eric, in Girona, Catalonia, Spain. Together over the last 20 years, they have traveled to over 70 countries. Amber is the author of the Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna.