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Last week Umberto Sidoli, a balsamico producer in Reggio Emilia in Italy, was in Napa to present a class and tasting for about 40 fans at Ca’ Momi Enoteca e Ristorante in the Oxbow Public Market.

Sidoli’s family has been making balsamico at the Cavazzone Azienda Agricola e Agrituristica for many generations. Some of the barrels at his balsamery contain balsamic vinegar that is more than 100 years old. Sidoli’s father has, for his private use, a barrel in the family 250 years old.

What Sidoli had to say may be an eye-opener for many: That Balsamico di Modena you have in your cupboard is an impostor. It almost surely isn’t real balsamic vinegar.

Because of quirky laws and copyrights, “Aceto Balsamico di Modena,” which is named after the birthplace of the precious condiment, can actually refer to “industrial” balsamic vinegar that’s a mixture of conventional wine vinegar, sweet concentrated grape must, coloring and perhaps preservatives. It costs $5 to $15 for a bottle and is suitable for salad dressings, cooking and flavoring sauces.

Only authentic, traditional balsamic is protected by Italian law. True balsamico contains just reduced grape must, fermented and acidified in a barrel, then aged in a series of ever-smaller barrels for years.

It also costs far more, from $30 to hundreds of dollars for tiny bottles containing as little as 1.7 ounces. You also use tiny amounts, typically a few drops per portion for an intense flavor.

True balsamico is labeled “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena” (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) and “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia,” depending on where it’s made.

A lengthy and expensive process

The product labeled as traditional balsamico can only be made in the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Emilia Romagna in central Italy. This area around Bologna is famous for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Parma hams and other luscious foods.

The process of making authentic balsamico starts with crushing white grapes, traditionally trebbiano, a bland grape that makes ordinary wine, and spergola, a grape unknown outside the Emilia Romagna region.

This must is then boiled down to about 30 to 40 percent to form the mosto cotto, and the cooled juice begins its transformation in an oak barrel similar in size or half as big as common wine barrels. “This begins its life,” said Sidoli.

The barrel already contains what Sidoli calls the “mother,” a small amount of product from previous productions. It’s almost like the idea of sourdough starter, which always has a pinch of previous batches that began years before.

The sweet wine first ferments to produce alcohol, which is turned into acetic acid by bacteria present in the air. It stays there for a year.

At Cavazzone, the balsamico is aged in the top of an ancient barn, open to the elements, where the alternating extremes of cold and hot seasons in the region evaporates and flavors the precious liquid.

“You can only make true balsamico in an attic where the temperature changes year-round,” said Sidoli. “We have terrible weather in Reggio Emilia. It’s cold, wet and snows in the winter, then it’s very hot and dry in the summer.”

After the first year, the maker determines when to transfer part of the barrel to a smaller barrel, then a series of smaller and smaller barrels made of different woods — ash, mulberry, cherry, juniper and chestnut — for many years. It must go through a minimum of seven barrels.

None is balsam wood, by the way. Each of these woods gives characteristics to the vinegar.

Only part of the barrel’s contents is removed, so you eventually end up with a blend that contains portions from many years. That means that any age on a bottle of fine balsamico is just a rough average. It’s similar to the soleras used to produce sherry in Jerez in southern Spain.

Industrial producers often claim the age of “up to” 10 years, but the bottle may contain only a tiny amount of the oldest vinegar.

Nothing is ever added to the balsamico, and evaporation slowly reduces the volume. You may start out with 100 liters and end up with 5 liters after 12 years, Sidoli said.

Tasting of real balsamico at Ca’Momi

Ca’Momi is the only source for his family’s balsamico in the United States, a partnership that began when Napa Valley Register columnist and Italophile Diane De Filipi introduced the two families. De Filipi regularly leads culinary tours to Tuscany, including one she organizes for students from Purdue University. Sidoli’s balsamery at Cavazzone Azienda Agricola e Agrituristica is one of their stops.

Sidoli’s family also owns the 500-year old La Posta hotel, one of the oldest hotels in Italy, and an agriturismo farm inn where the balsamery is located.

Sidoli’s brother Giovanni also makes wine but far away from the balsamico production because the bacteria that turns alcohol into vinegar will spoil wine.

Cavazzone sells 6-, 12- and 25-year-old balsamico. The prices at Ca’ Momi are $29, $149 and $199 for 100-ml (3.3-ounce) bottles. The prices depend on the age of the balsamico, which ranges from 6 to 25 years.

The family only makes about 5,000 small bottles of 50 and 100 milliliters (1.6 and 3.3 ounces) per year. It also makes some “condimento” that doesn’t go through this vigorous process, but it’s not sold at Ca’ Momi.

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Although Cavazzone makes the real traditional balsamico, it’s just labeled “Balsamico del Cavazzone” because the consortium that controls the Tradizionale product charges such a heavy price to use its name.

A tasting of balsamico

For the tasting I attended at Ca’ Momi, they started with a decent commercial product, which costs about $8. It was thin and sweet, but with a sharp taste. Even the 6-year-old Cavazzone was far thicker, with a rich sweet taste that reminds me of raisins (or vin santo wines made from dried grapes) and balanced acidity. The 12-year-old was noticeably better, and I actually preferred it to the 25-year-old balsamico.

Ca’ Momi prepared with an assortment of courses to pair with the balsamicos: roasted vegetables with the 6-year-old Grand Chef; onion frittata and pizza with mascarpone topped with raw arugula with the 12-year-old Grand Reserve; then the 25-year-old Grand Reserve with a chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and panna cotta.

While Sidoli was visiting in California, he and De Filipi visited the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, and tasted 30 products labeled balsamico and priced in the $7 to $9 range. “They can’t be real balsamic at that price,” he noted. After checking gourmet markets in Napa Valley, they found a few bottles of true aged balsamico only at Dean & DeLuca and Sunshine Markets in Napa Valley.

Sidoli warned: “Read the label. If it contains anything other than balsamico like wine vinegar, caramel or preservatives, it’s not traditional balsamico.”

He also offered another test: Shake the bottle. Traditional aceto balsamico has a syrupy viscosity due to evaporation and the concentration from aging. It coats the sides of the glass.

Using balsamico

Although you can cook or make sauces with the industrial balsamic vinegar, you don’t cook with authentic balsamico. You add a few drops to finish dishes.

Among the most traditional uses are on steaks, chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, fish, eggs, fruit and even ice cream.

You use so little that a small bottle lasts years, but that’s OK because it lasts indefinitely. Evaporation will occur over time, but more slowly if the bottle is kept corked. The bottle has an expiration date but that’s only because the regulation-happy European Union demands one.

Store balsamico with other condiments like salt and pepper, but not in the refrigerator or near the stove.

Sidoli warns not to combine authentic old balsamico with your best extra-virgin olive oil as the flavors tend to cancel out each other.

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