Jun 18th 2010

What Does “AOC” Mean and What Does It Say About a Cheese?

vecchia dispensa balsamic vinegars Vinegars from La Vecchia Dispensa

As mentioned in a prior post, Balsamico Tradizionale offers the best chance to taste some of the purest expression of true balsamic vinegar. One of the reasons for this is the thoughtful regulations governing the production of the high quality Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena Extra Vecchio  and Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia Gold, which dictate a range of protections - from the grapes varieties that must be used, to the style of bottle.

Once you move beyond the world of Balsamico Tradizionale into the less controlled world of non-tradizionale balsamics, things get more complicated. Historically, the category of balsamic, balsamico, or balsamic vinegar consisted of products with levels of quality all over the map. Some careful producers, employing traditional methods, produced balsamics with beautiful balance and depth of flavor. At the same time, large, industrial producers sold balsamics using inexpensive ingredients and time-saving technologies to maximize profits, capitalizing on the balsamic name.

In an attempt to preserve the integrity of this culturally relevant product, several private consortia decided to create their own quality standards as a way to provide some guarantees to the consumer. These consortia had varied success, but without a single, uniform standard, often created confusion for the buyer.

Eventually, there was a movement to institute some form of government mandated standard for the production of Aceto Balsamico di Modena. The idea behind such a movement was to recognize the importance of this product and its connection to both the traditional zone of production and to Italy’s gastronomic history as a whole.

igp logo for aceto balsamico di modena IGP logo for Aceto Balsamico di Modena

The movement produced Regulation No. CE: IT-PGI-0005-0430-18.11.2004 which at least gives lip service to the ideas that originally prompted the desire for greater regulation:

‘Aceto Balsamico di Modena’ has for a long time represented the culture and history of Modena and its worldwide reputation is undeniable. The product is closely linked to the knowledge, traditions and skills of the local people, who have created an exclusive and distinctive local product. ‘Aceto Balsamico di Modena’ has become part of the social and economic fabric of the area and is the source of income for many operators and an integral part of the local culinary tradition, as an essential ingredient in many regional recipes.

Sounds good, right? This regulation makes Aceto Balsamico di Modena an IGP control which is, in theory, implemented to guarantee the provenance of a product (the 'G' in IGP stands for Geografica). Unfortunately, this guarantee is not borne out in the letter of the law.

For example, the IGP regulations lack the specificity necessary to prevent producers taking advantage of low-cost ingredients from outside of the traditional zone of production. The regulations begin well enough with a seemingly unambiguous statement in section 4.3:

The production of Aceto Balsamico di Modena must be carried out in the administrative territory of the province of Modena or Reggio Emilia.

However, it is clarified with the following:

The mixing of raw materials, processing, refining and ageing in wooden containers must take place in the geographical area of origin. The product may be packaged outside the area specified in point 4.3.

There is no stipulation that the grapes be grown in the traditional zone of production or that the grape must be cooked in the traditional zone of production - only that the ingredients be mixed, processed, refined and aged in the geographical area of origin.

A worst case scenario using these regulations would be an Aceto Balsamico di Modena made using 20% concentrated Trebbiano grape must from Argentina, 78% aged wine vinegar from China and 2% caramel coloring. This would be 100% Aceto Balsamico di Modena as long as all of this is mixed, processed, refined and aged in the geographical area of origin.

The fact the regulations can be interpreted so broadly make them virtually irrelevant. If the intent is to protect the cultural relevance of a traditional product, why allow such flexibility in the sourcing of ingredients and methods of production?

The concept of product standards such as the French AOC, Italian DOP or the more recent EU PDO and IGP strike me as valuable tools in preserving traditional products if constructed thoughtfully to protect tradition, rather than catering to the lobbying efforts of large, modern producers. The regulations for Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP misses the mark and leaves the consumer with an impression of provenance and quality rather than any type of assurance.

At Formaggio Kitchen, we strive to have in-depth knowledge of each product on our shelves from the producers to their methods of production. To us, this is more important than any regulation or certification from cheese, to wine to vinegar. This fact is equally important to our customers who look to us to help them navigate the sometimes confusing world of the unique and traditional products we carry.

With this in mind, we invite you to visit our shops and taste some of our balsamic vinegars to discover the range of quality and flavor from some of the best producers in Italy (and only Italy!). Just ask any cheesemonger for a taste!

Terms worth noting:

  • Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia D.O.P. - A strictly controlled product made using only cooked grape must from regionally grown wine grapes. Produced only in the province of Reggio Emilia. Must be packaged in a bottle resembles an inverted tulip. Grades include affinato and extra-vecchio Reggio Emilia quality grading puts the red label and silver label in the affinato category and the gold label is in the extra-vecchio category.
  • Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena D.O.P. - A strictly controlled product made using only cooked grape must from regionally grown wine grapes. Produced only in the province of Modena. Must be packaged in a stout bottle with a bulbous bottom. Grades include a silver or affinato and a gold or extra-vecchio.
  • Aceto Balsamico di Modena I.G.P. - A controlled product with limited guarantee of provenance and wide variations in proportion of ingredients and overall quality.
  • Balsamico - In Italy, this name is technically not controlled but most producers do not use it in reference to non-IGP or DOP products. It is possible to include a reference if the product includes the IGP balsamico as an ingredient. For example, Condimento al Aceto Balsamico di Modena. Ingredients and quality of products using these words can vary widely depending on the producer.
  • Balsamic, Balsamiq etc... - There is no control on use of balsamic derivatives. Ingredients and quality of products using these words can vary widely depending on the producer.
  • Condimento - There is no regulation of this term, but it is often used to describe a balsamic product that does not fit the DOP or IGP regulations. Ingredients and quality can vary widely depending on the producer. For example, some producers of Balsamico Tradizionale will use 'condimento' for vinegars that do not meet the 12-year age minimum or have been rejected by the consortium - making them still very high quality products. At the other end of the spectrum, the term is used on industrial varieties with no guarantees with respect to quality and ingredients.
  • Saba (regional variations include sapa, vin cotto or mosto cotto) - This is a non-controlled product but typically refers to grape must that is not acetified and has been cooked further than would be normal for a balsamic vinegar. For example, balsamic might be cooked to 60% its original volume before the acetification and aging begins, while saba would be cooked to about 33% of its original volume with no acetification and sometimes aging. Ingredients and quality can vary widely depending on the producer. Generally tends to be quite sweet and viscous.
  • Agro di Mosto - This is a non-controlled name used to describe a young balsamic usually about two years old when bottled. Ingredients and quality can vary widely depending on the producer.

Tim Bucciarelli oversees general operations at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge and manages Formaggio Kitchen Online.