Are you curious why you can find balsamic vinegar for $6 at the grocery store or a hefty $300 in specialty stores? Price discrepancies this wide usually indicate real differences in product. But, when it comes to balsamic vinegar, understanding those differences is complicated. There is a wide range of production methods, different Italian certifications and nomenclature, and extreme variations in quality. And, to further complicate matters, the United States enforces no labeling laws or production laws to ensure you are getting what you pay for.
Our own curiosity led us to travel to Modena, Italy recently, where legendary balsamic vinegar is a specialty. Our first impression was unsettling when my husband Shawn and I visited a major producer at his huge factory and he described part of the process to us.
“We make this product in a few minutes. This is our best seller in the United States. We can’t label it balsamic vinegar here in Italy, where there are strict labeling laws, but there are no laws in the U.S. regarding what can or cannot be labeled as balsamic vinegar. Import the cheap stuff, call it balsamic vinegar and it will sell very well,” he said, while proudly displaying a several thousand bottles/hour bottling line.
It sounded eerily familiar to stories we’ve heard about imported olive oil, so we were determined to uncover a better understanding of balsamic vinegar: how it is processed, why region of origin is important and what regulations come into play to ensure its authenticity. We found that Italian balsamic vinegar is best understood by reviewing three categories of production:
- Traditional Balsamic Vinegar
- Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, PGI
- Condimento Grade Balsamic Vinegar
TRADITIONAL BALSAMIC VINEGAR
Traditional balsamic vinegar is unique from all other vinegar-based condiments. Unlike ordinary vinegar that has its origins in alcoholic liquid, true balsamic vinegar is produced directly from grape juice. White and sugary grapes, such as Trebbiano, are used. They are harvested and crushed as late as possible to ensure a high level of BRIX (or sugar content) and their liquid, called “must”, is boiled in an open vat over a fire. The must cannot be allowed to ferment. At the first sign of fermentation, it is removed from the vats before the sugar can be transformed into alcohol.
It is then filtered and transferred into another boiling vat where it is brought to a slow boil and allowed to simmer gently and slowly until the desired level of concentration is reached. The range of concentration is fairly wide, from 30 to 70% depending on the quality of the vintage, the sugar level, and the particular practice of the producer. Once the cooked must has been removed from the boiling vat, it is filtered again and poured in the wooden casks after cooling down. This can be done immediately or delayed until the following spring. The choice depends on family traditions.
Over the next twelve or more years, a series of decanting and topping off is done in a set of wooden casks, as shown in the photo below.
The first operation consists in removing some amount of vinegar out of the smallest barrel (typically a 15 to 25 liter barrel). This barrel is then topped off with vinegar from the next size up barrel. This is repeated until the largest barrel in the set, about 60 liter, is topped off with the cooked must.
The casks are made of different types of wood (Oak, Cherry, Ash, Chestnut, Mulberry, Juniper) and have all been used previously to make wine. The tannins have been leached out and the wood has absorbed components that are ultimately passed on to the vinegar during the aging process.
Over the years, microbiotic and enzymatic modifications unite to achieve an exceptional balance in fragrance and flavor. Time spent in the barrels is important, but so are the age, type, and thickness of the wood. Ingredients, time, producer experience and technique each play a major role in the taste and quality of the final product. To be able to judge exactly how much must to add, and at what stage, requires a very special touch. No additives, spices or flavoring are added at any point in the process.
Appelation and Authenticity
In Italy, balsamic vinegars made in the pure traditional methods in the Modena region are called Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) and are guaranteed by the Consorzio Tra Produttori Dell’Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (Consortium of Producers of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena). They cannot be sold in bulk. They are packaged in special bottles approved by the Consortium and sold only as such. There are two products:
- Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Vecchio Di Modena (“old”, 12-15 years old). They have a cream-colored cap.
- Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Extravecchio Di Modena (“very old”, 25-30 years old) with a golden-colored cap.
Traditional balsamic vinegars in the Reggio Emilia area are called Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia area and have a similar seal of quality. The age of the vinegar is coded by label color instead of cap color. A red label means the vinegar has been aged for at least 12 years, a silver label that the vinegar has aged for at least 18 years, and a gold label that the vinegar has aged for 25 years or more.
The names "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena" and "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia" are protected by both the Italian Denominazione di Origine Protetta and the European Union's Protected Designation of Origin.
The Consortium also requires a sensory evaluation by long-time trained judges. Unfortunately, the procedures are not standardized yet, so it is not always easy to replicate. And equally important, labeling the products with a specific age, e.g. 25 year-old, is not allowed. This is easily understandable as it would not be possible to determine the exact age of the vinegar.
People are often fixated on the age of the vinegar, but age is only a minor part of the story. Color, density, fragrance and flavor are the real components to evaluate when tasting balsamic vinegar. According to the Modena Consortium, the color of traditional balsamic vinegar is a rich dark brown, full of warm light. The liquid is dense, with a fluid and syrup like consistency. The density can be as high as 1.37 with a minimum of 1.24g/ml for Modena and 1.20g/ml for Reggio Emilia. It is a result of water evaporation during the long aging period. The fragrance is distinct, complex, sharp and unmistakably but pleasantly acidic. The flavor is sweet and sour in perfect proportion. There is an ideal balance between sweetness and acidity (at least 4.5% for Modena and 5% for Reggio Emilia). In Modena, we tasted balsamic vinegars that were so good they were more reminiscent of Madeira wine than vinegar.
The slow and labor intensive method of making traditional balsamic vinegar can clearly only be used to produce small quantities of product, at a high cost. The result is an unlimited number of imitations, which fall into two main categories, Balsamic Vinegars of Modena, PGI and condimento grade balsamic vinegars.
BALSAMIC VINEGAR OF MODENA (PGI)
These are commercial grade balsamic vinegars that have qualified for the PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) seal. They are made from concentrated grape musts, wine vinegar and caramel. The caramel helps enhance the color, increases the viscosity, and adds sweetness. Even with the caramel, they are much less thick than traditional balsamic vinegars (minimum density of 1.06 only). Their acidity must be at least 6%.
In order to obtain the PGI certification, certain vineyard characteristics are imposed by law, although the vines can grow outside the Modena Province. Certain production rules also have to be followed. The product must spend at least 2 months in a wooden cask; in order to be classified Aceto Balsamico Invecchiato (Aged Balsamic Vinegar), it must spend at least 3 years in a wooden cask.
CONDIMENTO GRADE BALSAMIC VINEGAR
These products, that are not called balsamic vinegars in Italy, have no certification. At one end are high quality artisan products that do not qualify for the “Traditional” certification for one reason or another. For instance, they may be:
- Made and aged in the traditional way in Modena or Reggio Emilia, but without consortium supervision and approval. As opposed to the “Traditional” vinegars, they can be sold in bulk. They are not allowed to be labeled Vecchio or Extra Vecchio, but instead are called Antico or Molto Antico
- Made by producers of traditional balsamic vinegars but aged less than the minimum 12 years.
- Made by the same method as the traditional vinegars by producers located outside of Modena and Reggio Emilia and not under consortium supervision.
At the other extreme are commercial grade products made of wine vinegar with the addition of coloring, caramel and thickeners like glucose/fructose syrup, pectins, guar gum, xanthan, modified or native starch. There is no aging involved, and hundreds of thousands of gallons can be produced every day. These vinegars never see a wood cask. This is what is found in most U.S. grocery stores.
As there are no official standards or labeling systems to designate condimento balsamic vinegars, it can be hard to tell their quality based on the packaging alone.
Some of these products are of much better quality than the purely commercial grade balsamic vinegar, however. They can be excellent artisan products. Finding reliable and trustworthy producers is the key. Our Cask 8, Cask 10, and Cask 25 vinegars fall in this category.
So what should you look for when you buy balsamic vinegar in the U.S.? First, realize that there are no labeling requirements so anything can be written on the label. A common practice is to label balsamic vinegar with a particular age, e.g. 5-year old, when in fact, it only has the density or viscosity of a vinegar that has truly been aged that long (e.g. 5 year). High density can be achieved by many other methods than true aging.
Decide what you want to use the vinegar for. It makes no sense to buy very expensive traditional vinegar to make gallons of salad dressing or to create a balsamic glaze. Always inquire to find out whether additives were used in making the vinegar. If it says “aged” or has a certain age on the label, ask what this specifically means. Then try to find a product that has PGI certification, or better yet, find a reliable source that you can trust. Our Cask 8, Cask 10, and Cask 25 vinegars are outstanding examples of artisan made products at a reasonable price.
Sources: Consortium of Producers of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
In Part II, we will explore some traditional uses for balsamic vinegars and provide some classic recipes that use this very special ingredient.