The Basics of Balsamic Vinegar

The Emilia-Romagna region of Italy is known for some of the pillars of world cuisine including Parmigiano-Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma and Balsamico Tradizionale. Each is a controlled product and as such is given the DOP or PDO designation (Denominazione Origine Protetta). The Balsamico Tradizionale DOP was granted by the Italian government in 1986 and in 2000 the EU granted the same. As with the French AOC certification, the Designation of Protected Origin stipulates a set of requirements based on both geographic origin and production methods.

There are actually two consortia that promote the DOP Balsamico Tradizionale. Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is produced within the zone in and around Modena and Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia is produced within the zone in and around Reggio Emilia. In addition to these truly traditional products, there is a more recent regulation for Aceto Balsamico di Modena. This product is given the Indicazione Geografica Protetta or IGP status which is a less strict designation than DOP and in some cases allows for a wide spectrum of quality in the finished product.

Producing Balsamico Tradizionale

Balsamico Tradizionale is a very unique product and represents the pinnacle of what balsamico can be. Balsamico Tradizionale is made exclusively from the mosto or must of ripe grapes (the juice, skins and pips left over after pressing the grapes). The regulations stipulate the grapes must be wine grapes grown within the region of designation (Modena or Reggio Emilia). After pressing, the grape must is separated from the skins and seeds and is filtered. The must is brought to a boil and then a simmer over an open flame for 24-30 hours. The cooking process is a delicate balance of reducing the must while maintaining the fresh flavors of the grapes. If it is done too quickly, it can over-caramelize the sugars and destroy the delicate flavors. By the end of the cooking, the liquid is reduced to one third to one half of its original volume. In most modern production, the cooled liquid is then inoculated with yeasts or the “mother” which begins the fermentation and acetification process.

The young vinegar is transferred to a battery of barrels consisting of at least three barrels of decreasing size and all made from one of the traditional woods: oak, chestnut, mulberry, cherry, ash, and juniper. The barrels are kept in a warm environment (traditionally an attic) to encourage slow evaporation of the liquid. After a year each barrel is refilled from the next larger barrel. As the vinegar ages, more of the precious liquid evaporates and each barrel is continually topped up with a bit of liquid from the previous barrel. Over time, this evaporation concentrates the flavors of the juice and further integrates the flavors of the wood. Balsamico Tradizionale is never aged less than 12 years after which the original volume (roughly 18 gallons) has been reduced to less than one gallon.

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia DOP

The world of Balsamico Tradizionale is broken up into two zones of production: Modena and Reggio-Emilia. The very first way to identify Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio-Emilia is by inspecting the bottle it is sold in. All Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia must be bottled in a traditional “inverted tulip” bottle of 100ml size.

The grapes approved for use in making Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia are Lambrusco, Ancellotta, Trebbiano, Sauvignon, Sgavetta, Berzemino and Occhio di Gatta. The grapes must be grown in the Reggio Emilia region. This traditional balsamico must be aged a minimum of twelve years before being considered by the consortium for certification and bottling.

As in Modena, the minimum age for any traditional balsamic is 12 years and at 25 years, a traditional balsamic is labeled “extravecchio”. In addition to this basic distinction, the Reggio Emilia consortium has adopted a grading system which is a strictly qualitative ranking based on anonymous tastings performed by the consortium. The three categories that have been defined are aragosta (red seal), argento (silver seal) and oro (gold seal). There can be some general relation between age and grading, but producers in Reggio Emilia strive to establish the most important factor as the quality of the balsamico as determined by the blind tasting of an independent panel. In 2010 about 22,000 bottles of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio-Emilia were produced.

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP

Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is immediately identifiable for its bulbous 100 ml bottle designed by famed Italian automobile designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. Traditional balsamic from Modena may only be made from the must of wine grapes grown in the province of Modena including the varieties Trebbiano, Lambrusco, Spergola and Berzemino. In the finished product from Modena, there are only two grades. The younger of the two is aged at least 12 years but no more than 25 years and is sealed with an ivory neck band. Traditional Modenese balsamico aged for more than 25 years is labelled as “extravecchio” and has a gold neck band. Both are sealed with a label of certification from the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. In 2010, about 60,000 bottles of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena were produced.

Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP

Aceto Balsamico di Modena is a completely different product and bears only a passing resemblance to the tradizionale described above. Aceto Balsamico di Modena is made from grape must of any of the following grape varieties Lambrusco, Sangiovese, Trebbiano, Albana, Ancellotta, Fortana and Montuni. In contrast to the tradizionale balsamicos, the regulations for Aceto Balsamico di Modena allow the grapes to be grown anywhere in the world and require only that the “mixing of raw materials, processing, refining and aging in wooden containers must take place in the geographical area of origin”. The grape must can be cooked anywhere and after processing in Modena, the bottles can be filled anywhere.

Aceto Balsamico di Modena also allows much greater flexibility in what can be added to the vinegar. While traditional balsamicos contain nothing but cooked and acetified grape must, Aceto Balsamico di Modena is required to contain at least 10% aged wine vinegar of unspecified origins and may contain up to 2% caramel coloring. In fact, as long as the resulting vinegar contains at least 20% concentrated grape must and meets the prescribed liquid density requirements, it can consist of as much as 80% wine vinegar.

In addition to aging in wooden containers, the use of wood chips is allowed to help imbue the vinegar with a desirable woodsiness (a similar process is used in modern winemaking). Aceto Balsamico di Modena can be bottled after 60 days of aging and if it is older than three years, it is allowed to bear the term “invecchiato” or aged. The finished product may only be bottled in 250ml or 500ml sizes.

One concept worth explaining further is that of cooked grape must versus concentrated grape must. In traditional balsamic production the grape must is cooked carefully over an open flame – a method that requires both skill and artistry. Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP producers typically use a technique of pressure cooking the grape must to create a concentrate of desired density. Very concentrated must will be the texture of honey and when added to the less-expensive wine vinegar, can still yield a relatively viscous product. The product may be no more than 60 days old, but because of its viscosity, it gives the impression of a more aged vinegar.

As with any well-designed and monitored designation of origin, we are guaranteed a minimum level of quality. This is certainly the case with both Modena and Reggio Emilia in the production of balsamico tradizionale. However, in the case of Aceto Balsamico di Modena, there is so much latitude in the production there is virtually no guarantee of quality or provenance whatsoever.

As a retailer of these balsamic products, we rely on our personal experience with each producer to secure our confidence in both the quality and the provenance of their products.