Diner: Opening the Doors

Tasting and understanding the differences between balsamic vinegars

Dec 7, 2005 at 2:06 pm
slim Jim Puvee

Mike Anagnostou swirls the contents of his wine glass with a well-practiced flourish before judiciously bringing his nose to its rim. He closes his eyes and, with his nose now buried almost completely in the glass, inhales deeply.

"Ah," he says, lowering the glass for a moment and nodding to himself.

On a Sunday afternoon Anagnostou and I are sitting in the coffee shop of the Hyde Park bigg's store. On the table are two bowls, one filled with mushrooms and cherry tomatoes, another with crusty pieces of French bread. Lined up next to the bowls, in an orderly row, are six bottles of balsamic vinegar.

Not far from where we're sitting, about halfway up aisle 2, there are more than 50 balsamic vinegars, costing between $2.79 and $13.59 a bottle. There are organic and oak-aged varieties; screw-capped bottles, bottles with corks and bottles infused with pear, apricot and fig. And in a locked box above these, there are balsamic vinegars that cost $75 and even $130 a bottle. And they are small bottles — each one stands maybe 6 inches tall, stamped with its own individual number and packaged in a cushioned presentation box.

These vinegars have traveled a long way to become part of the locked display halfway up aisle 2 of the Hyde Park bigg's. In fact, their story began as many as 25 years ago in Modena, a dry and rugged region of northern Italy.

Back then they were sun-matured Trebbiano grapes, hanging in thick bunches on a well-tended hillside. They were picked and squeezed, and their unfermented juice — or grape must — was boiled down in copper pots and mixed with red wine vinegar. The mixture was then slowly aged in a battery, a line of wooden barrels, ordered from largest to smallest, made of oak, cherry, chestnut, ash, mulberry or juniper.

As the vinegar ages, it is transferred to smaller barrels, each of which infuses its contents with its own unique flavor. Gradually, 20 liters of thin, young vinegar thicken and become 14 liters. Years pass, and 14 liters become 6-and-a-half liters, which become 4-and-a-half liters and then 3. Grape harvests come and go, decades pass and the vinegar, undisturbed in its barrel, slowly ferments.

But Anagnostou knows none of this: He's a wine steward at bigg's. In the wine section, he is a minor deity, able to discern the subtlest differences between varietals. But take him to aisle 2, walk him past the canned fruit and stand him in front of the balsamic vinegar, and he is powerless.

There, his palette is stripped of its fluency. By his own admission, Anagnostou knows almost nothing about balsamic vinegar.

He's not aware of the Four Leaf Quality Certification System, adopted in 2002 by the powerful Associazione Assaggiatori Italiani Balsamico, which awards balsamic vinegars a grade of between one and four grape leaves, depending on their quality. He probably hasn't even heard of the cabal-like Consortium of Producers of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, which grants a vinegar its official seal only after it has passed a blind tasting by five experts. It's possible he doesn't even know that the Vinegars and Acetic Acid Bacteria International Symposium held its annual meeting last May in Reggio Emilia, Italy.

And, of course, there is no reason he should. There is no reason why any of us should know — or want to know — anything about balsamic vinegars. But I was curious about the difference between the $3 bottle of vinegar in my kitchen and the individually-numbered bottle costing $130 on display in aisle 2 of the Hyde Park bigg's.

Back in the coffee shop, neither of us knows quite what to do next. The bottles of vinegar sit open in front of us. We tentatively sniff each one and fidget. I eat a tomato. A woman sips her cappuccino and watches two grown men gazing intently at six bottles of vinegar. Anagnostou and I glance at each other.

"What if I go and get a couple of wine glasses so that we can swirl it around?" he asks, as I eat another tomato. By the time I nod, he has disappeared.

"I guess the best way to approach this," Anagnostou says a few minutes later, "is the way we approach wine: Set up some criteria and score them."

As with wine, he says, the color, the bouquet, the feel in the mouth and the taste should all be important judging criteria. "The other thing, I guess, would be the aftertaste," he says, "whether or not it's pleasant versus something you can't wait to get out of your mouth."

He pours "This one, the Gia Russa ($2.79), literally splattered into the glass," Anagnostou says. We each sink a mushroom into the vinegar. "It's a thin taste," he says with a grimace, "and it doesn't really have a clinging quality to the mushroom. I taste more the mushroom than the vinegar."

I nod enthusiastically. We try the Monari Federzoni ($3.19) and are similarly unimpressed. The one-dimensional acidity of the inexpensive vinegars is overpowering, scouring its way through the sinuses. But we don't seem quite so ridiculous anymore. We're scoring vinegar. And we obviously know what we're doing.

Anagnostou pours the Consorzio Organic ($5.89). "See?" he says. "Overall, there's a smoothness to it from the way it pours. It does a good job of coating the mushroom. I'm getting more of a sense of the mouth feel. It was an improvement over the other two. There's an actual progression."

We try another vinegar, and then another. We are becoming vinegar experts.

"This one doesn't seem to have the same effrontery to the nasal passages that the cheaper ones do," Anagnostou says, swirling the Acetum Fiaschetta ($13.59) around his wineglass. "It's less intense and more consistent in its aroma. There's a progression from something that has more of a punch to something that has a sweetness to it."

Anagnostou then uncorks a stubby, heavy-bottomed bottle of Acetum Santorini — priced at $24.99 for 250 ml. It is the most expensive of the six vinegars standing in front of us. It is, in fact, a Four Leaf vinegar.

He tilts it carefully and pours a few black, syrupy tablespoons of its contents into a clean wineglass. It pools thickly in the bottom of the glass.

I dip a tomato into the vinegar, which is so thick it threatens to suck the tomato from the toothpick. It is as sweet and full-bodied as vintage port, tangy and reminiscent of stewed fruit, and still as sharply acidic as some of the other vinegars we've already sampled. It is a complex taste experience.

"Look at how it coats the glass!" Anagnostou says. "It has a sweeter quality to it, almost a raisin flavor to it. There's actually a 'jaminess' to it."

Compared to the others, it is a different product altogether. "It has a wonderful feel in the mouth and almost a caramel-type color," Anagnostou says.

He points to the row of vinegars, from the Gia Russa through the Consorzio to the Acetum Santorini. "It's almost like you've gone from wine to vinegar," he says, "and back to wine."

I seem to have taken a perfectly good wine steward and corrupted him with balsamic vinegar. We each dip another tomato into the Acetum Santorini. "Isn't it terrible when you get to the point that you think, 'Oh my gosh, I don't have the right balsamic vinegar'?" Anagnostou asks.

He puts his wineglass down and wipes his mouth with a napkin. "The doors of perception," he says with a smile, "have been opened." ©