An Italian treasure controlled by law
Standards adopted and administered by consortia in Modena and Reggio Emilia govern every aspect of how the vinegar is produced and aged, including bottle shape and even the foil that covers the cap. Here's the lowdown on what you'll find here in America, from the real article to good imitations.
True balsamic vinegar wears the name Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or di Reggio Emilia on the label. Tradizionale is the key word here. It must be aged for a minimum of twelve years in wooden casks and be approved by master tasters. Small bottles of tradizionale balsamic vinegar start at about $75 and go upwards of $400.
Condimento-grade balsamic is made in the traditional way but doesn't bear the stamp of consortium approval.
Condimento balsamic vinegar made in the traditional method offers the best value. Producers who either live outside Modena and Reggio Emilia or who have decided to release their products without consortium approval make the second category of balsamic vinegar. Such products are often grouped under the name condimento balsamico but may bear other names such as salsa balsamica or salsa di mosto cotto. These vinegars may be produced and aged according to the identical standards of a tradizionale outside the zone or released prior to twelve years and so do not qualify. Prices for these vinegars can be good and are the best value for the savvy consumer. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee on the bottle, but some makers of tradizionale also release condimento-grade balsamic vinegar.
In contrast to tradizionale is Aceto Balsamico di Modena, which is essentially an imitation of tradizionale. It may or may not undergo two complete fermentations, may or may not be aged in wood, and doesn't undergo lengthy aging. Often it's a concoction of concentrated grape juice mixed with strong vinegar and caramel coloring. Most balsamic vinegars available in America fall into this category. The packaging, which frequently includes fancy bottle shapes, sealing wax, claims of age, and images of dusty dukes, often promises more than it delivers. In fairness, not all are bad, but the best way to judge is by tasting.