UNDERSTANDING BALSAMIC VINEGAR
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is a very special vinegar with roots dating back to ancient Roman times and instead of using wine like other Italian vinegars, the product is obtained by using the cooked juice of the grape, known as the “must”. There are several different types of balsamic vinegars and unfortunately, sometimes they are represented with false claims for their aging claims, quality of ingredients and origin. This has led to some misconceptions and caused some confusion among traders and consumers. This presentation aims to clarify the different types and its production to give the reader a better understanding of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.
Two different recipes originated throughout history, and gave birth to the only two existing, regulated products: Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP (Protected Geographic Indication) Again, these two items are the only two items regulated and approved by the Italian Government and European Union.
1. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP
What is Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena?
It is a special vinegar produced by obtaining the juices (must) from pressing the grapes. This must is cooked for hours over direct fire until a brown, syrupy liquid with a good grape smell is obtained (cooked must.) This cooked must is then aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 years following the Solera System.
These barrels are made of different types of wood, such as cherry, chestnut, oak, mulberry, and ash and they each hold different capacities (the first barrel holds about 40 gallons and the last one holds about 2 gallons capacity). Normally there are sets of 5‐7 or 9 barrels. This set is called “batteria”.
The Solera system, also called ‘topping up,’ calls for the continuous (every year) and consequent topping up of the cooked must into the next smaller barrel so each year the ‘newest’ cooked grape must is blended with the one from the previous year already contained in the barrel.
It is very important to understand that it is constantly a blend of new harvests with previous ones which explains why the legislator in Italy forbids any aging claims on labels for this item. The legislator also strictly forbids any aging claim due to the fact that there is only an organoleptic test performed to the product. In fact, the only way to determine a precise age is actually with a Carbon 13 test.
The barrels used for ageing the vinegar are stored in attics in which the temperature and different seasons determine the speed of fermentation. In the cold winter months the process of fermentation is slow and with the heat and humidity of the summer months the fermentation process speeds up and causes a natural concentration of the grapes by evaporation. Each barrel actually absorbs some of its content, allowing for the aroma of each particular wood.
After a minimum of 12 years (again, according to the Solera system, so in reality it is really the age of the barrel and not of its content) the result is a very sweet, thick, rich, and complex vinegar. The producer can submit the product to a panel of Master Tasters within the Consortium of Producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (CPABTM). This panel of master tasters only performs an organoleptical evaluation on the colour, viscosity, taste, flavour and aroma. If the product scores more than 250 points the producer is allowed to bring the product to the Consortium who actually fills the bottle for all their associates. So, the product is actually packed by the Consortium and not by the individual producer. By law, the product may only be bottled in a unique 100ml bottle (designed by a famous designer: Giugiaro) and this particular bottle is the same for all the producers. This is an important step in controlling and guaranteeing the quality of the product.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is produced in 3 distinctive qualities aged from a minimum of 12 years to a maximum of 50 years. Thus, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP is a very expensive vinegar.
The price is explained by the high cost of the barrels. Balsamic vinegar barrels are actually more expensive than wine barrels because they are made of a thicker wood since they need to sustain the acidity of the content. A set of empty barrels (batteria) easily costs around 8‐10 thousand USD and the cost of the raw materials are high because one loses around 30% of the original must throughout the cooking process. It is also explained by the length of time one needs to wait before actually selling the product: it takes a minimum of 12 years to be able to produce about 1 gallon per year of vinegar.
Since they couldn’t really sell such an expensive and scarcely available product, few stores in Modena (Fini and Giusti) started the practice of blending Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena with strong, aged, red wine vinegar. The product they created is not as thick (easier to use), and is a less expensive product (wine vinegar is not expensive) but has the same types of organoleptic features as traditional (so, somehow sweeter, denser and more complex than regular wine vinegar). This process originated what is very popular and sold today in more than 60 Countries (it’s among the first 5 Italian food products naturally recalled by Chefs all around the world): BALSAMIC VINEGAR OF MODENA PGI.
2. Balsamic Vinegar of Modena P.G.I.
This product is obtained by the blending and consequent fermentation of must (either cooked or concentrated) with wine vinegar. For most Balsamic Vinegar producers, the addition of less than 2% of caramel color is also added in compliance with law and which is a natural product. It is used to keep a consistent and uniform colour. However, our producer is unique in that they have developed a method whereby our Traditional-Style Balsamic is now made without any caramel colour. At this time, all our flavoured dark balsamics still have less than 2% of natural caramel colouring.
The concentrated grape must is a vacuum process with low temperature that creates a low flavour profile with a sweet and fruity taste at a lower cost. The cooked grape must is under direct fire, burning sugars and creating a high flavour profile, full body at a higher cost (same type as used for Traditional). Even though many claim not to, it is important to understand that ALL other producers use caramel colouring. It is simple to understand this due to the fact that the colour of the products is always the same year after year, despite the obvious difference in characteristics from one harvest to the next.
The concentrated or cooked must or a blend of the 2 is mixed with wine vinegar that creates a mass which is then fermented and aged. It is the quality of the must along with the wine vinegar in this primary blend that is important to the quality of the final product. The quality and quantity of these ingredients can be measured by a simple lab analysis that measures the density, dried extracts, and dried extracts without sugars.
The quality of the final product is more the result of the blend of ingredients rather than the mere ageing of them. Because of this blending and due to the different quality levels of each individual harvest, exact ageing claims cannot be proven and the Italian government forbids ageing from appearing on labels.
Basically, the goal for a Balsamic Vinegar of Modena producer is to offer their clients a steady and consistent quality (taste, aroma, and flavour profile). Since each grape harvest is different, the vinegar maker needs to blend and age different qualities for different amounts of time in order to obtain this consistency of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI.
The quality of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI is determined by 3 main factors: Quality of Ingredients, Quantity of Ingredients, and Ageing. Within the same category, there may be substantial differences in quality and the degree of concentration which is a very important factor in determining the quality of the final product.
A deep study was run by the AIB (The Italian Association of Balsamic Tasters) along with the CSFA (a well reputed sensory analysis center) to implement a reliable tool so they are able to grasp the true meaning and quality of Balsamic Vinegars of Modena and to steer clear of gimmicks and misrepresentation. This system determines standards of quality in which 4 basic quality categories were identified and certified, known as the “Leaf System.” Those classified under the 1 Leaf Categories are the lowest grade quality with a lighter flavour profile, and those classified under the 4 Leaf Categories are the highest grade quality with a more superb taste and fuller flavour profile.
The Leaf System: The Only Quality Certified System in Today’s Market
3. White Balsamic and Balsamic Condiments
Several years ago, chefs began searching for a product with the same characteristics of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, but without the same dark color in order to not discolour the presentation of certain salads or prepared dishes.
White balsamic condiment was created and, however similar to balsamic vinegar of Modena, it still obtained some different characteristics. For example, the taste of the product is fruitier and less bodied than the “regular” balsamic vinegar of Modena and the flavour is sharper and less woody.
In addition, some products are manufactured with similar ingredients and procedures, but for one reason or another are not allowed to be called Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI or Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP. If it is not manufactured according to Italian Law, or if it is manufactured the same way Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is but it is not packed in the same 3oz bottle, it has to be called Balsamic Condiment.
This is a very grey area and although I mentioned that some condiments are very similar to the real thing, it is important to be skeptical when buying balsamic condiments, as some may also be a product of completely different ingredients under the same name.
DOP = Denomination of Protected Origin
PGI = Protected Geographic Indication
**PGI and DOP are very strict protective systems used to preserve the traditional methods of food production for specific areas and regions. (For example, all Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI must be produced under very strict procedures and guidelines within the administrative boundaries of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy)**
A Few Recapping Questions …
Q: What are the only two balsamic vinegar items regulated and approved by the Italian Government and European Union?
A: Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena P.G.I
Q: What ingredients are employed in Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP?
A: Only cooked grape must.
Q: What ingredients are employed in Balsamic Vinegar of Modena P.G.I?
A: Grape must and wine Vinegar. Less than 2% caramel is added for colour adjustment purposes.
Q: What is the importance of the grading system?
A: It is the first ever quality indication for Balsamic vinegar and allows for better price/quality comparisons.
Q: What is the reason for the high cost of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP?
A: The high cost of the barrels, raw materials, and length of time needed to wait before actually selling the product.
Q: Are ageing claims the only and most important determinant of quality?
A: No, actual ageing of vinegar is not ever determined due to the process of the Solera System. Ageing is really the age of the barrel and not of the content it contains.
Q: What determines different quality levels?
A: The quality of ingredients, quantity of ingredients, and ageing.
Q: What is a condiment?
A: Anything made or manufactured similar to Traditional and regular Balsamic Vinegars of Modena but have differences that are not recognized by the Italian Government and European Union.
Rating System for Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
There are four quality levels of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. This rating is for commercial Balsamic Vinegar, not Balsamic Vinegar made the traditional way.
Commercial Balsamics are made by blending traditional Balsamic with simple red wine vinegar and sometimes caramel colouring. Basically, the higher the ratio of traditional Balsamic to vinegar yields a higher rating. However, there are other factors that affect rating such as the quality of the wine vinegar and the age of the traditional Balsamic.
You should choose the one that best fits your desired use. The certification which is issued by the CSQA guarantees that each bottle meets the standards of quality for each classification. The rating system is one to four Vine Leaves.
1-4 Leaf Rating System
One Leaf – Suggested for salad dressings and everyday use. Light flavor and slightly acidic. Vinegar flavour is more pronounced.
Two Leaves - Suggested for marinades, BBQ’s and steamed vegetables. Here is where you will begin to taste the sweetness of the Balsamic and less of the added vinegar.
Three Leaves - Suggested for roasted meats and fish, warm sauces. Can be very nice drizzled directly onto the food. Sweeter than one and two leaf Balsamic. Smoother flavour.
Four Leaves - Suggested for exclusive recipies, fresh fruits, ice creams, drizzled over parmesan. Sweet superb taste.
Balsamic Vinegar or Balsamico Tradizionale, What Is The Difference?
With the rise in popularity of Balsamic Vinegar you may not have realized that most of us have never had the joy of tasting a true Balsamico Tradizionale. What is the difference between the original and what is available today in most grocery stores?
The process of making true Balsamico Tradizionale is a very lengthy and involved process. At a minimum Balsamico Tradizionale must be aged for 12 years before it can be labeled as such. Some are aged as long as 50 years. The process is closely monitored to ensure quality and adherence to traditional methods. In addition, this sweet syrupy delight must be aged in wood and cannot contain any of the additives that are commonly used to create commercial Balsamic Vinegar such as wine vinegar, caramel flavouring and caramel colouring. This accounts for the great price difference between commercial Balsamic Vinegars and Balsamico Tradizionale. The latter can easily run into the hundreds of dollars for one bottle. This product is too valuable and flavourful to be used in common salad dressings but instead is served drop by drop. It should not be cooked but only added to the food right before serving.
Commercial or “industriale” Balsamic Vinegars can have a wide variety of qualities and flavours. Commercial varieties can also be labeled as “Aceto Balsamico di Modena”. Determining the quality of these Balsamic Vinegars can be much more difficult as this product can be made in a number of ways. For example, “aged in wood” could mean that just some of the product was stored in wood for as little as one month. That is why many commercial Balsamic Vinegars will state how long they have been aged on the bottle. Buyers should be aware that price is not always the best determination of quality. One way to know what you are getting is to check the ingredients, if the ingredients say “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” instead of listing the ingredients there is no way to know what, if any, additives were used. These commercial vinegars are used much more liberally in cooking and the making of salad dressings and reductions. With the wide variety of flavours, sweetness and acidity available, you are sure to be able to find the perfect one for your recipe.
Although different from Balsamico Tradizionale, commercial balsamic vinegar is a wonderful addition to many meals and high quality versions can readily be found. Have fun sampling the many different balsamic vinegars and discover your favorites.