Do you have a bottle of aged balsamic vinegar in your cupboard right now? Chances are that if you bought it for five or ten bucks from the grocery store shelf, the bottle of stuff in your cabinet claiming to be balsamic vinegar is not really what it purports to be.
In preparation for this article, I perused the stock of balsamic vinegar at a large chain grocery store near where I live. I saw offerings averaging in the range of six dollars per 16-oz bottle. That would be quite a fantastic deal for aged balsamic vinegar. These thin sweet-tart concoctions are not even close to resembling the complexity of a genuine aged balsamic.
In the U.S., there is no standard of identity for balsamic. Therefore, unfortunately, these products and vary quite widely whether they come from Italy, somewhere near Italy, or the U.S. At these price ranges, there is simply no way at all that they will be anything but a dark red to purple sweet tasting vinegar with perhaps a bit of flavor. In other words, absolutely nothing special. Sure, you could make a nice enough vinaigrette from them, but you could do that with any number of vinegar. True balsamic, on the other hand, is the king of all vinegar. Let’s get into it a bit.
Real Balsamic Vinegar
Traditional balsamic vinegar is produced in small amounts in Modena and Reggio Emilia, both Northern provinces of Italy. It usually starts with the Trebbiano white grape, but sometimes Lambrusco or others. These are picked at their ripest stage and then ground and pressed, much like cider. Unlike wine vinegars, the grape juice is straight-away fermented into wine before it is allowed to turn into vinegar. Instead, it is gently simmered until it becomes quite thick and the sugar content is much more concentrated. This liquid, called mosto cotto, is then filtered and placed into barrels, which are usually oak. From there, yeast fermentation takes place, forming alcohol. This fermentation will have a much larger amount of sugar left in it than traditional wine, even sweeter varieties. After this, acetic acid bacteria take over and turn the alcohol into acetic acid, which is the acid in vinegar.
Aged Balsamic Vinegar
After the initial vinegar is formed, the real magic takes place. Over 12 years, the vinegar is transferred into smaller and smaller barrels made of different types of wood. These may be chestnut, ash, cherry, mulberry, or juniper. While aging inside each barrel, the wood imparts its own distinct flavors. The precise length of time that the vinegar stays in each barrel depends on the recipe of the particular family who produces it and it is this part that is kept secret. When all is said and done, after 12 years, only one quart of balsamic is produced for every 24 quarts (approximately) of juice. You don’t have to guess, then, that this will be very expensive to buy.
Twelve years is only the minimum. Some of these vinegars may continue to age for decades after this initial process. They then must pass an extensive battery of tests by the consortium of balsamic producers (consortia in Modena and Reggio Emilia) before it can be bottled and sold. True traditional balsamic come in a special round bottle which bears a control number from the consortium. It will be labeled Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia. A small bottle will run you at least $50 and up to $400 or more.
Although tradizionale will always be the finest balasamic, produced under the strict rules of the consortium, you can still get a very good balsamic for less money if you look for a condimento. These are produced outside the confines of the consortium but some are still produced to the same criteria. These have names such as condimento balsamico, salsa balsamica or salsa di mosto cotto.
The stuff you’ll find at your grocery store varies greatly but the ones that sound fancy and authentic are called Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, or, in Italian, Aceto Balsamico di Modena. For example, at my store I found Monari Federzoni 1912 Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and Modenaceti Aceto Balsamico di Modeno. This last claims on the label “protected geographical indication.” The PGI seal is described:
The PGI seal of certification is awarded by the Certifying Committee and Supervisory Board of the European Union which has established a specific procedure that monitors every phase in production, from raw materials sourcing to finished product. Only Balsamic Vinegar of Modena made with grape must from permitted varietals that reflect the heritage of the Modena province in Northern Italy and produced in the same area is considered truly authentic.
This is actually IGP (Indicazione Geographica Protecta) rendered in English: Protected Geographical Indication. The term “Protected Geographical Indication” (IGP) is a legally registered trademark established by the EU. It is reserved for agricultural products and foodstuffs whose r quality, reputation or other important characteristic depends on their production, processing and/or preparation taking place in a defined geographical area. In the case of balsamic, it means it’s made in Modena. However, the grapes can come from elsewhere.
As great as all that seems, this is decent stuff, fine for a salad dressing, but it’s not even close to a tradizionale. Most of these are made from wine vinegars (sometimes mixed), to which a caramel color is added and often, a concentrated grape must. In fact, the latter product’s ingredient label reflects this: Wine Vinegar, Concentrated Grape Must, Caramel.
You can use these cheap grocery store varieties in somewhat large amounts. In contrast, traditional balsamic is used in very small amounts, usually just a few drops at a time, depending on how aged it is.
How Can You Tell Whether it’s Real Tradizionale?
There are a bewildering variety of names and claims on bottles of balsamic. Even some of the more expensive bottles will look quite legit but are still not true tradizionale as governed by the consortium. A closer look at the ingredients will usually reveal this. The best stuff contains only one ingredient: grape must. If on the other hand you see two or three ingredients and one of these resembles wine vinegar, it’s not the real deal. It may be a very good product, but if you’re looking to try the very best Italy has to offer, this isn’t it.
There is one very easy way to tell, however: The bottle. The consortium approves only one very special bottle with an odd shape and all DOP certified balsamic is bottled by the Consorzio, These quie distinctive bottles are all one size, 100ml. The bottle is very round and spherical with a rectangular base which project into the front with an arch arched projection where the label is placed. You really can’t mistake it. Here are some examples, the first two of which are 25-year-old balsamic vinegar:
Manicardi Extravecchio DOP Balsamic Vinegar Aged Over 25 Years. This is an Extra Vechhio, which means it is “extra old.” While traditional is aged for a minimum of 12 years, extra vecchio is aged for a minimum of 25 years.
All these are DOP certified. This stands for Denominazione di Origine Protetta (Protection Designation of Origin), a much stricter criteria than IGP. For more information on IGP and DOP designations, see this article at Yummy Italy
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