The truth about Balsamic Vinegar – What is it?
The price and quality of balsamic vinegar can vary widely and is largely determined by whether or not it is authentic traditional balsamic. Authentic traditional balsamic only comes from two places: Modena or Reggio Emilia, Italy. Traditional Balsamic is highly regulated and controlled. It is produced in small quantities and is sold at a much higher price point than non–traditional balsamic. It is labeled as either aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena or aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia and is adorned with the appropriate seal and certificate of origin, and ensconced in a specially shaped bottle.
Most of the products on the market labelled balsamic are not authentic traditional balsamic but condimento or industriale. This does not mean that they are not flavorful, useful, and appropriate. It also does not mean that they did not originate in Italy.
Authentic Traditional Balsamic only comes from two places: Reggio Emilia or Modena, Italy.
How is authentic traditional Balsamic made?
Grapes are pressed and filtered and the juice (called the “must”) is boiled over an open flame in an open vessel until it is reduced by about 50%. At this point it is stored in tanks until the process of fermentation allows the alcohol level to reach a certain value. Acetic acid bacteria are then added and promote the browning process.
The thickened mixture (the “base vinegar”) is placed in different types of wooden barrels of various sizes (from very large to very small). Barrels are constructed of different types of woods to impart different flavor characteristics (e.g. cherry wood makes it sweet, and oak is typically used in the smaller barrels.)
The barrels are then stored to begin the aging process. Conditions are very important in the formation of Balsamic Vinegar as warm temperatures allow for browning, evaporation, and concentration; whereas, cooler temperatures promote decantation and pureness. Thus, a temperature variance from warm to cold and back (like in an attic) is a desirable environment for creating balsamic.
Eventually, evaporation will reduce the amount of liquid in each barrel. Once a year, the barrels are “topped off” from a barrel one size larger. Thus, over time, liquid gets moved from the largest barrels to the smallest (by moving through an entire series of barrels), imparting an abundance of concentrated flavors as it goes. Five different types of wood are necessary to classify a balsamic as traditionale. The concentrated balsamic remaining in the smallest barrels (after an extended aging period) is bottled and sent to market (or kept for personal consumption).
Traditional Balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia (aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia): How would I know?
Traditional Balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia (aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia) must be made from grapes originating locally. These include Trebbiano, Occhio di Gatto, Spergola, Berzemino, Marani, Salamino, Maestri, Montericco, Sorbara and Ancellotta.
Additionally, it must be assessed by master tasters who determine if it is worthy to be called Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Reggio Emilia and if so, categorize it according to three “levels”: aragosta (lobster red), argento (silver), or oro (gold). Aragosta has been aged a minimum of 12 years, Argento 18 years, and Oro a minimum of 25 years.
It must be contained in a special 100ml bottle adorned with a wax seal and have a seal of authenticity from the Consortium of Producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegars from Reggio Emilia. The D.O.P. seal (designation of protected origin) ensures the product is actually from Reggio Emilia.
Traditional Oro label from Reggio Emilia: note the shape of the bottle, the red wax top, the Reggio Emilia seal, and the numbered label directly below it. The seal to the right is the designation of protected origin.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Modena (aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena): How would I know?
Traditional Balsamic from Modena must be assessed by a panel of five expert tasters. The “standard” aging time is twelve years and that which is aged over twenty–five years is adorned with the words “Extra Vecchio.” It must be contained in a special 100ml bottle adorned with a seal of authenticity from the Consortium of Producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegars from Modena. The D.O.P. seal (designation of protected origin) ensures the product is actually from Modena.
Traditional Balsamic from Modena: note the onion shape of the bottle (characteristic of Modena) and the numbered seal across the top. The seal to the right is the official seal of the Modena Consortium.
What is condiment balsamic? Why is it less expensive?
Aceto Balsamico di Modena (Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) is commonly used to denote condiment balsamic that is a less expensive version of the traditional. This type of balsamic is considered “condimento” because it did not undergo the stringent process required to be considered traditional. It may have used only three woods instead of five, been released earlier than 12 years, or come from a region outside of Reggio Emilia or Modena. As a result, the price is much lower. As an example, an 18yr Aged Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (Aceto Balsamico di Modena) in a 250ml bottle would typically retail at Olivada for $15. To compare, an 18yr (Silver label) Traditional Balsamic from Reggio Emilia in a 100ml bottle retails for $183. Both are great products and we would be happy to sell you either one! However, each has its purpose.
The balsamic at the grocery store is $5. What’s up with that?
What you’re looking at is “industriale” or commercial grade balsamic. In fact, it’s tough to even call it balsamic. This is a mass produced substance that is really nothing more than vinegar, often with a caramel coloring and sugar added to make it appear better than it actually is. As a marketing ploy, manufacturers will actually print a large number on the bottle such as an “8” or a “12”. This number means absolutely nothing! It is simply a gimmick to make the uninformed consumer think they are getting a product aged for that period of time.