Balsamic vinegars vary significantly in terms of quality and price. While it is thrilling to discover a “tasty” balsamic vinegar at an affordable price, there are hundreds of not so cheap imitations on the market. In much the same way that wine labelling is now protected, the Italian regulatory authorities have taken steps to protect the integrity of the product and the reputation of local growers who adhere to these rules.
Currently, only two consortia in the Italian provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia produce traditional balsamic vinegar. Authentic balsamic vinegar is made from a reduction of pressed Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes boiled down to approximately 30% of the original volume to create a thick syrup called mosto cotto or cooked “grape must.” The “grape must” is then aged in wood barrels (oak, chestnut, cherry, and other woods) for periods ranging from several months to many years. The flavor of the must intensifies over the years, with the vinegar becoming sweet, viscous and very concentrated. Found below is an interesting video that shows the difference in a traditional balsamic vinegar and the more common commercial variants.
Found below is a simplified guideline to help distinguish among the three basic classifications of balsamic vinegar.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (“DOP”)
Traditional balsamic vinegar designated by the two consortia: Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena; are aged in barrels for at least 12 years and often longer. The fermenting grape must may not be withdrawn until it has aged in the cask for 12 years. At the end of the designated aging period (12, 18, or 25 years) a small portion is drawn from the smallest cask and each cask is then topped up with the contents of the preceding (next larger) cask. Freshly reduced cooked must is added to the largest cask and in every subsequent year the drawing and topping up process is repeated. This process where the product is distributed from the oldest cask and then refilled from the next oldest vintage cask contributes to a consistency in both taste and quality. Consortium-sealed and labeled traditional balsamic vinegar 100 ml bottles can cost between US$150 and $400 a bottle.
Consortium Certified Balsamic Vinegar (“IGP”)
In order to protect the integrity of the product, vintners in Modena and Reggio Emilia now have the option of bottling Balsamic Vinegar under the supervision of the Consortium (Reg.CEE n. 583/2009). While the grower/bottler will add wine vinegar to the grape must, the bottling and supervision of the aging process in rigorously controlled by the Consortium to determine its quality ratings. While quality standards will vary, the “IGP” certificate on a bottle of balsamic vinegar indicates a far more rigorous level of supervision and control over the final product.
Condiment or “Condimento” Grade Balsamic Vinegar
Condimento or “dressing” balsamic vinegars may be labeled as condimento balsamico, salsa balsamica or salsa di mosto cotto. Condimento balsamic vinegar may be made in any of the following ways:
- IGP status (see above) requires a minimum aging period of two months, not necessarily in wooden barrels, rising to three years when labeled as invecchiato (aged);
- Made by producers of traditional balsamic vinegars but aged less than the minimum 12 years;
- Made by the same method as the traditional vinegars, but made by producers located outside of Modena and Reggio Emilia provinces and not made under consortium supervision;
- Made of ordinary wine vinegar with the addition of grape must (mosto cotto) in varying proportions, without any aging
The choice of a “right” balsamic vinegar is generally a matter of taste. With so many tainted varieties on the market, it is best to seek out a product certified by the consortium (“IGP”) or – if you can afford it – the traditional balsamic vinegar carrying the “DOP” certification.