Various types of balsamic vinegars are available in the market, however, the most traditional and authentic balsamic vinegars hail from the Emilia Romagna region in Italy, specifically in the cities of Modena and Reggio Emilia, where the grapes have an optimum balance of sweetness and acidity, and the climate is most conducive to the balsamic vinegar ageing process.
These traditional balsamic vinegars (known in Italian as “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale”) are produced only with fresh grape juice (known as “grape must”) unlike other vinegars which have wine vinegar added in and sometimes caramel and coloring as well. Additionally, the aging period is no less than 12 years, unlike non-traditional balsamic vinegars which are aged for a much shorter period of time, sometimes just a few months.
Producers of traditional balsamic vinegar must be members of the Consorzio Aceto Balsamico di Modena (Consortium of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) which regulates traditional balsamic production.
Consequently, these traditional balsamic vinegars command a considerably higher price in the market and they can be identified by a legally approved bottle shape (which non-traditional balsamic vinegars are not allowed to use), as well as an official European Union certification: “D.O.P.” (“Denominazione di Origine Protetta” which is Italian for “Protected Destination of Origin”). So, for instance, a traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena aged for 12 years would carry the label “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, D.O.P., Affinato” while a traditional balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia aged for 12 years would carry the label “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia, D.O.P., Affinato”.
To carry the “D.O.P” certification, the entire process of producing traditional balsamic vinegar must take place in the region of origin; in the case of traditional balsamic vinegar, this is either Modena or Reggio Emilia (this includes the source of grapes which must also be grown in these areas, so for instance, cheaper grapes grown elsewhere are not allowed to be used).
This compares with bottles labeled “I.G.P” (“Indicazione Geografica Protetta” which is Italian for “Protected Geographical Indication”) which is stamped on bottles of balsamic vinegars that are processed in Modena and made with grapes varietals typical of Modena (Albana, Ancellotta, Fortana, Lambrusco, Montuni, Sangiovese, and Trebbiano). However, the grapes may have been grown in a locale other than Modena or Reggio Emilia.
“Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Affinato” is aged for at least 12 years.
“Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Extra Vecchio” (“Extra Vecchio” = “Extra Old”) is aged for a minimum 25 years.
“Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Riserva Oro” (“Riserva Oro” = “Gold Reserve”) is aged for at least 100 years.
Traditional Production Method Of Balsamic Vinegar In Italy
Balsamic vinegar production in Italy has traditionally been an artisanal process which continues to this day using techniques, recipes and paraphernalia (such as wooden caskets) handed down over several generations of mostly small-scale producers. The process originated in Modena and was later adopted in the Reggio Emilia region. It first begins with the grapes. Only certain locally-grown grape varieties are used to make traditional balsamic vinegar with Trebbiano and Lambrusco being the most common. Other varieties are Ancellotta, Berzemino, Occhio di Gatto, Sauvignon and Sgavetta. These grape varietals were poor choices for making wine and so were put to good use by producing balsamic vinegar instead.
Late in the year during autumn, the grapes are harvested. Harvesting them as late as possible in the season allows the grapes to naturally produce a higher concentration of natural sugars. These freshly harvested grapes are processed into “grape must” (pressed grapes which includes seeds and skins). The pulp and skins are then filtered out and the grape juice is cooked for hours over a slow fire until it reduces to about half its original volume and turns into a brown hue. The exact time this requires depends on the size of the batch, the climate, humidity etc. The boiled down juice is then set aside to ferment in wooden barrels for a period ranging from a few weeks to a few years.
In winter, perhaps during the months of January or February, the process of making the vinegar begins. This is done through a “batteria” – five or more wooden caskets, decreasing in size. The caskets are crafted with particular kinds of wood. Seven types of approved wood are used namely oak, cherry, juniper, mulberry, chestnut, ash, acacia (the last two are not widely accepted and are not very common),
The type of wood greatly contributes to the flavor of the resulting vinegar. For instance vinegar aged in cherry wood caskets tends to have a sweeter flavor profile. Each wooden casket in the “batteria” is made with a different type of wood, which imparts a flavor to the vinegar different from the previous casket it fermented in. The blend of wood used to ferment the vinegar is very much a part of the producers’ secret recipe. Producers are legally given freedom to decide on the combination of wood for the “batteria” depending on the flavor and aroma the individual producer wishes to produce for their balsamic vinegar.
Each year, vinegar from the smallest casket is taken out and bottled. Next, the fermenting liquid from the second smallest casket is poured into the smallest casket and liquid from the third smallest casket is poured into the second smallest casket and so on. The fresh batch of fermented grape must is poured into the largest casket.
As the must ages, it gets increasingly concentrated as a result of the evaporation that takes place through the walls of the wooden caskets, ultimately resulting in a liquid with the thick, viscous, syrupy consistency and intensely rich flavor that traditional balsamic vinegar is famous for.
How long the vinegar sits in these antique caskets (some could be over 100 years old, the older the casket the better the flavor) varies from producer to producer, the method they use and the quality of the vinegar they intend to produce. The longer it sits, the more rich and intense the flavor, the more thick and viscous the consistency and the higher the price in the market.
The barrels are stored in attics where it would be influenced by external climactic changes. It is believed that the contrasts of heat from summer and cold from winter help the ageing process.
The final product is tested by a panel of judges from the consortium for quality and if it passed the test, it is bottled in legally approved bottles which are reserved exclusively for traditional balsamic vinegars, provided a government-issued registration number and sealed with a D.O.P label. If the vinegar fails the test, it may require further ageing and so is returned to the producer. The producer may return it to the wooden casket and re-submit to the consortium for testing which may be within the next year or after a few years. Or the producer may simply sell it off as a lower-grade “condimento”.
Authentic artisanal D.O.P. traditional balsamic vinegar is not as acidic and vinegary compared to commercial-grade balsamic vinegars. The word “balsamic” was derived from the word “balm” which referred to a soothing tonic (since the ancient Romans believed balsamic vinegar had therapeutic properties).
Guide to buying traditional balsamic vinegar
Look for the EU label “D.O.P.” (“Denominazione di Origine Protetta”)
Look for the word “tradizionale” on the bottle.
Look for a government-issued registration number.
Look at the ingredients list. It should only contain “grape must”. Nothing else.
Look at the bottle shape. Traditional balsamic vinegars from Modena are sold in 100 milliliter bottles with a “sphere and cube” design (designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro) while vinegar from Reggio Emilia are sold in bottles with a tulip design.
Frequently Asked Questions
HOW IS TRADITIONAL BALSAMIC VINEGAR USED?
Traditional balsamic vinegar is usually not used for cooking as this would destroy its rich flavor and nutrients. Depending on the flavor and aroma profile of the vinegar, it may be suited for ice cream, strawberries, cheese (particularly “Parmigiano Reggiano” cheese) or meats (such as lamb, venison), prosciutto and fish. Traditional balsamic vinegar aged in cherry wood caskets for instance, has a slightly sweet flavor and thus makes it suited for sweets and desserts such as ice cream, gelato and strawberries. Juniper vinegar is pungent, thus making it suitable for meats. Mulberry vinegar is fruity making it delicious with fruit cocktails. Traditional balsamic vinegar is of vastly superior quality compared to commercial balsamic vinegars, and thus usually just a few drops or a light drizzle would suffice.
WHY IS TRADITIONAL BALSAMIC VINEGAR SO MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE COMPARED TO OTHER TYPES?
Quality over quantity results in limited supply. Traditional balsamic vinegar is an artisan product, and only a stipulated quantity of high-quality balsamic vinegar is produced annually.
WHAT IS “CONDIMENTO”-GRADE BALSAMIC?
This is balsamic vinegar that was well-produced using traditional methods however it didn’t pass the consortium for a D.O.P. label and instead of returning the vinegar to the wooden casket, it is simply sold off as a lesser-grade “condimento”, commanding a substantially lower price than traditional balsamic vinegar with the D.O.P seal. Condimento vinegars are preferred for salads where olive oil and other ingredients are mixed in (Italians tend to enjoy traditional balsamic vinegar with minimal interference from other ingredients). However, there exist some “condimento”-grade balsamic vinegars that are simply commercially produced products that are of inferior quality.
HOW SHOULD TRADITIONAL BALSAMIC VINEGAR BE STORED?
Store balsamic vinegar in a cool, dry place, away from sunlight.
Like olive oil, balsamic vinegar does not require refrigeration. It could be stored at a temperature of between 4 – 30°C.