At $36 per ounce, Traditional Aceto Balsamico of Monticello is more expensive than silver. And with as few as 700 4.5-ounce bottles produced annually, it’s the among the rarest and most coveted American-made products. James Beard Award–winning chef Paul Bertolli calls it the “best and most authentic of the New World balsamics,” and Bon Appetit magazine ranked it as one of the best artisanal Italian pantry staples in the U.S.
“Traditional balsamic is one of the ultimate hand-crafted food products on the planet,” explained Steve Darland, one half of the husband and wife duo behind the product. Whereas traditional balsamic is made slowly and carefully over a minimum of 12 years, its counterpart, industrial balsamic — which is often little more than white or red wine vinegar with sweetener and coloring — can be made in as little as a day.
A single bottle of Monticello Balsamic contains the concentrated juice of 200 pounds of grapes — enough to make about 50 bottles of wine. After two decades spent aging, what remains is a dark brown elixir that’s at once sweet and tangy, flooding taste buds with notes of red wine and chocolate, and a lingering honey sweetness. Its complexities grow more difficult to unravel as the flavors unfold, lacking the sharpness that vinegar is known for, with a hazy, velvety feel and a viscosity akin to syrup.
A single bottle of Monticello Balsamic contains the concentrated juice of 200 pounds of grapes — enough to make about 50 bottles of wine.
Monticello Balsamic is made from organic Trebbiano grapes, grown and aged in a former ghost town in southern New Mexico. The region’s low humidity and high heat stress grapes as they grow — a condition that yields more concentrated flavors. After being reduced over an open fire and fermented for several weeks, the grape juice is aged in a battery — a series of wooden casks crafted by Italy’s leading cooper (barrel-maker), Francesco Renzi, whose family has been in the business for more than 500 years. The battery comprises seven wooden barrels, each progressively smaller than the last, created from single varieties of rare woods.
With time, the liquid inside each barrel condenses, the flavor transformed by the wood of the cask. Once the liquid has concentrated a certain amount, it is transferred to the next smallest barrel, and so on, down the line so that the final outcome, 20 years later, is a tiny fraction of the original input. “The annual maximum total we withdraw per year is less than 35 gallons,” Darland said. “It is only withdrawn from the eight smallest casks at the end of [our eight batteries].”
The yield is further reduced by a blending process intended to create a more balanced, nuanced flavor. “Each of the eight batteries produces different tasting results — some sweeter, some more acidic, some ever so slightly more flavored by the woods they’ve contacted,” Darland explained. What results is a concentrate whose quality surpasses many Italian balsamics, and whose intricacies are elevated and revealed through pairings with other foods, be they strawberries, Parmesan cheese, grilled steak or ice cream.
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