Balsamic Vinegar: A Buying Guide

Ever wandered around the Deli and wondered what food could possibly be so valuable that it would be locked inside that little glassed off section of shelving near the olive oils? The answer is vinegar: finely aged, potently flavorful, rare and authentic balsamic vinegar.  While our top-shelf vinegars are kept safe behind lock and key, we also carry a wide variety of delicious specialty vinegars that are more budget friendly.  

Read on to learn more about the beautiful world of balsamic! 

The Real Deal: Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale

Italians refer to real balsamic vinegar as tradizionale, in contrast to the industriale, or industrial vinegar on supermarket shelves. Vinegar experts speak in hushed tones of the saga of the Tradizionale vinegars. The vinegar is aged for a minimum of 12 years in wooden barrels, after which an exacting panel of judges sample to decide the fate of these vinegars. Real balsamic vinegar is never, ever, cheap. To the contrary: it is always very expensive. You’ll no more see real balsamic vinegar on supermarket shelves than you’ll get genuine Gucci leather at a Brooklyn street market.

Behind lock and key, the majestic Balsamico Tradizionale have been known to stop tasters dead in their tracks. The explosion of flavors can be heard for miles—an intense, perfectly calibrated burst of sweet and sour that slowly unfurls into a smooth, mouth-filling sweetness. Aceto balsamico tradizionale has an incredibly rich flavor, a deep, dark amber color, and an almost syrupy texture. The sourness is gentle, comforting; supportive but never intrusive. It hints of plums, black grapes, wild currants, vanilla, a touch of oak. To taste industriale after the real thing is like following a bit of well-aged cognac with a bottle of Coke. There’s a place in the world for each, but they are most definitely not meant to be drunk one right after the other.

What makes it so expensive?

It’s really not that hard to figure out why these vinegars cost so much. If you start with 100 liters of new vinegar, by the end of the minimum twelve-year balsamic aging period you’ll have lost more than half of it to the atmosphere. Twice as long in the barrels and you’ll be down to about ten percent of the original volume—only ten liters or so will be left! Give it an additional 40 or 50 years of aging and your yield might be little more than a single liter. As the vinegar ages, its aroma intensifies, and its texture gets denser by the day. An extra vecchio Modenese vinegar like we might get from the folks at Vecchia Dipensa is a third again as heavy as water—a liter weighs in at an impressive 1.3 kilos! Add in all the cost of carrying inventory and the regular work of carefully blending and shifting liquid from one barrel to then next and it’s actually impressive that it’s not more expensive than it is. 

What do you do with it?

It’s best to enjoy it in simple dishes to fully appreciate its excellence. In Modena, Italy they sprinkle it over just-made omelets or applied liberally on sautéed fresh calves liver. It’s excellent drizzled over roast lamb. We love it with little broken bits of Parmigiano-Reggiano, the cheese from the same region. If you want to put an amazing regional antipasto plate, serve up slices of Prosciutto di Parma, pieces of Parmigiano-Reggiano sprinkled with a bit of the aged Balsamico. Or make a Balsamico Tradizonale Parmigiano-Reggiano risotto! 

What if you don’t want to spend a $100 on vinegar?

Bottle of La Vecchia Dispensa balsamic vinegarSince less expensive vinegars are not authentic balsamico, they can’t be labeled as such by Italians who want to maintain the integrity of the real thing. Instead their labels use alternatives such as  “condimento” or “salsa.” Still, they’re the next best thing to being there. While the quality of these condiments are all over the map, Vecchia Dispensa’s are delicious—certainly not as complex or intense as the tradizionale, but a really darned good vinegar by our standards. They’ve all got the mellow smoothness and sweet-sour character that makes balsamic so loved by salad makers and are some of our best sellers!

Meet Vecchia Dispensa

photo courtesy of La Vecchia Dispensa

Vecchia Dispensa is the producer of some of the best Balsamic vinegar being made in Italy. Unlike impostors found in supermarkets, which are made from sweet wine vinegars and even molasses, Vecchia Dispensa balsamic are made entirely from the must of Trebbiano grapes. A recent convert was so inspired by the dramatic difference in taste between the impostors he was accustomed to and the real stuff, he was heard to exclaim, “I’ll be back!”

What makes it so good?

The quality of the raw material, the care they put into making it, and the care that goes into it. If you’ve been around the Deli you’ve probably seen the Vecchia bottles—they’re distinctly different than any other on the shelf. The little parchment colored labels are completely hand cut, hand singed with a candle, then hand stamped with red wax seals. The curled edges are done by rolling the label around a small stick. It’s an amazing amount of hand work, but this is what they do! The result is a very beautiful little bottle of vinegar to put on your table at home.

In terms of what they put inside the bottle that is, of course, the most important thing – the quality of the vinegar. They’re very focused on creating vinegars in which the sweet and sour are balanced. Many producers are making vinegar “for the American market” by pushing the sugar content higher and higher. But it’s really when the sweet and sour are properly balanced that Balsamic is at its best. While many balsamic condiments on the market are made with wine vinegar base blended with just enough of the Balsamic must to give them some flavor, at Vecchia Dispensa they use 100 percent must—no other vinegar is added. After six years of aging they remove the vinegar from their batteria. Some are offered for sale as is. The rest is blended with vinegar that would otherwise qualify as tradizionale. The higher the percentage of tradizionale they add, the better the flavor, the denser the liquid, the more costly the bottle.  The amount of aged vinegar they add goes anywhere from eight percent on up to 20.  

Which one should you buy?

What you get out of all of this is very, very flavorful, very well balanced vinegar that’s still affordable enough to use every day at home. We have six, eight, ten, sixteen and twenty year “condiments” from Vecchia Dispensa. All are good. Customers regularly ask us which of them they should get. Our answer is always that, in this case, there’s a very direct correlation between concentration/intensity of flavor and price. You won’t go wrong with any, but the older the vinegar, the most it costs, the more intense the flavor. 

Quality Balsamic on a Budget from Vecchia Dispensa

6 year

Our youngest offering from Vecchia Dispensa – deliciously tart and flavorful. Aged in oak barrels, its origin is the same as the great tradizionales, but costs a fraction of the price.  For many, this vinegar is the best entry point to the world of better-than-basic-balsamic we’ve found. Without a doubt, it’s head and shoulders above the caramel-colored, sugar-sweetened factory-made stuff that’s on the shelves in supermarket, it’s ideal for everyday eating for anyone who likes the sweet-sour synergy that makes Balsamic vinegar so appealing to regular salad eaters. 


8 year

Our most popular everyday balsamic vinegar. While the six year old vinegar is the lowest cost, the eight is our best seller. It’s notably more flavorful than the former, yet still affordable enough for everyday salad dressing, sauce seasoning and omelet enhancing. It’s a perfectly versatile balance of tart and sweet. Its uses are endless and we bet it’ll quickly become a staple in your kitchen (if it isn’t already).


10 year

This vinegar is slightly more dense, with a woody, earthy intensity balanced with just enough sweetness to round out the flavors. Although a quick bit of algebra would lead you to think that this one might be about 25% more flavorful than the 8 year vinegar, the reality is that the increase in intensity is actually much greater than that. We can’t really explain why—but if you’re thinking about stepping up to something pretty special but still don’t want to go for the total all out top of the line tradizionale, this stuff is a great place to invest your hard earned cash. It’s definitely one of the most intensely flavored balsamic condiments of its age we’ve ever tried. 


16 year

This one is beautifully balanced.  Truly something special, this one is made special just for us!  It is blended to capture the woody, earthy intensity of our 10 year aged balsamic and rounded out with a dose of lush sweetness, the kind you’ll find in older bottles. This one is 16 years old, ready for the Debutante ball.


20 year

A wonderfully sweet, rich elixir that makes a fantastic gift, from the same great beginnings as the tradizionales, but aged only in oak barrels. In some ways, this vinegar may be the best value Vecchia offers.  Because while the vinegar has been aged long enough to qualify as tradizionale, they don’t sell it that way. Which means you’re getting a whole lot of flavor at a bit more reasonable price. It’s probably not for every day eating for most of us but it is affordable enough to make it a really great gift for Mother’s Day or Graduation for a food lover. It’s got a pretty darned intensely delicious flavor that’ll be great with the local strawberries when they come to market in June!


Bottles of balsamic vinegarShop our Annual Balsamic Blowout Sale

Every January through mid-February, we put all our balsamic vinegars on sale, making all of them–the more popular and affordable “condiments” and the tradizionale–even more affordable to you.  Even more exciting this year is that all of our vinegars are online, so you can browse all the varieties of tradizionale without having someone unlock the cabinet at the Deli for you.

Intrigued? Stop by the Deli, or place an order online, to dive into the wonderful world of balsamic vinegar!