Finding real balsamic vinegar can be very difficult. Below are some of the easiest ways to find what you are looking for.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to taste a balsamic vinegar, that takes the number one spot. Your toughest challenge will be finding a place selling real balsamic vinegar available to taste. I hope to make it more commonly available one day.
If you're worried about not knowing what to look for as far as taste goes... you'll know it when you find it. It's not going to be something that tastes a bit better because it's flavored with raspberries or maybe a bit more palletable because it's hidden behind the flavors of whatever its poured on.
You'll actually truly enjoy getting to taste it by itself just off of a tasting spoon and know that you found something special. Something that is compeltely different from any balsamic vinegar you've had before.
It all starts with the ingredients
I've yet to find a bottle of balsamic vinegar sold at the grocery store that doesn't include "wine vinegar" as the main ingredient or if it's a flavored variety the main ingredient will often be "balsamic vinegar".
If this is the case. It's not what you're looking for.
Real balsamic vinegar is only made using grape must.
How long is it aged for?
I wouldn't live and die by this rule because I've seen many products that are listed as being aged for 12, 20, 25 years etc. that do not even closely resemble real balsamic vinegar aged for that same length of time.
Authentic balsamic vinegar must be aged for a minimum of 12 years. When it's aged for less than that the acidity content is going to be too low and wine vinegar is often used to try to boost the acidity (which is no substitute for the real thing).
This actually leads to my next point....
Check the acidity content
The acidity content of real balsamic vinegar is going to be 6% or more. That doesn't mean you should avoid something necessarily that is around that 6% mark however I would be very wary of any products that do not at least meet it.
Where is it made?
The origin is very important because balsamic vinegar is supposed to be made with very specific varities of grapes grown in specific regions in Italy. Grapes of different varities or that are grown in different regions will not taste the same.
Without getting too granular, you're looking for products that are made from Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes. They should be grown in either Modena or Reggio Emilia.
This one isn't a requirement as many great vinegar houses choose not to go the certification route however I would be remissed if I didn't at least mention it.
If a balsamic vinegar is inscribed "aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena" or "aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia" you know you have the real thing. This is what is known as traditional balsamic vinegar and is protected by the DOP/PDO certification. However I would be very careful as to ensuring that a bottle specifically uses the words "aceto balsamico tradizionale" as I often see labels dance around the regulations imposed on this term by using the translated version "traditional balsamic vinegar". The term in English is not protected and regulated or at least if it is it is hardly enforced and abused as a result.
That does not mean that all real balsamic vinegar is DOP. The best balsamic vinegar I've had actually was not DOP. I recommend checking out "What is DOP Balsamic Vinegar" to learn more about why DOP balsamic vinegar is not always your best option.
The IGP certification (abbreviated PGI in English) is often found on the bottles you can find in the grocery store. This certification guarantees very little if you're looking for the real deal. The vast majority of these products are made using industrialized methods.
Go with your gut
Sometimes you can't verify all of these things and you have to go with what makes sense. Unfortunately we're never going to see real balsamic vinegar sold in the US for $10 a liter. It's impossible to produce a product that requires so much work for that cheap.
If you have limited information and the person selling it can't answer basic questions about it then go with your gut.
If you are in the US be sure to check out our collection of authentic balsamic vinegar here!