Buyer Beware: What is REAL Balsamic vinegar?
Be sure to carefully read the label on the balsamic vinegar you buy because there are different grades based on ingredients, origins and processing methods. Vinegar labeled "Balsamic vinegar of Modena" is not true balsamic vinegar. True traditional balsamic vinegar is made under consortium supervision in Modena and Reggio Emilio in Italy. Other vinegars are of varying quality, but be sure to look for IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta – Protected Geographical Indication) certification on any Italian vinegar you buy. The label identifies a product originating from a specific region whose quality, recipe and characteristics can be traced back to its geographical origin, and of which at least one production and/or processing phase takes place in its designated zone of production.
This European Community recognition represents a guarantee for consumers.
IGP labeled products are guaranteed to be authentic and of the highest quality.
True traditional balsamic vinegar
Only two regions in Italy produce true traditional balsamic vinegar, Modena and neighboring Reggio Emilia. Both are made with consortium supervision.
True balsamic vinegar is made from a reduction of pressed Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes. The resulting thick syrup, called mosto cotto in Italian, is then aged for a minimum of 12 years in several barrels of successively smaller sizes. The casks are made from a variety of woods like oak, chestnut, cherry, mulberry, ash or juniper. True balsamic vinegar is a rich, glossy, deep brown with a complex flavor that balances the natural sweet and sour elements of the cooked grape juice with hints of wood from the barrels.
Reggio Emilia designates the different ages of their balsamic vinegar (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia) by label color. A red label means the vinegar has been aged for at least 12 years, a silver label means at least 18 years and a gold label designates aging of 25 years or more.
Modena (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena) uses a different system: A white cap means the vinegar has aged for at least 12 years and a gold cap bearing the designation extravecchio (extra old) means the vinegar has aged for 25 years or more.
Consortium-sealed Tradizionale balsamic vinegar bottles of 100ml can cost between $150 and $400 each.
Condimento balsamico (also labeled "salsa balsamic" or "salsa di mosto")
There are no official standards or labeling systems to designate condimento balsamic vinegars, so it can be hard to tell their quality based on packaging alone. It may be made in the following ways:
-Produced and aged in Modena or Reggio Emilia in the traditional way without consortium supervision and approval.
-Made by producers of tradition balsamic vinegars but aged less than the minimum of 12 years, so no consortium approval is possible.
-Produced in the same way as traditional vinegars, but by producers located outside of Modena and Reggio Emilia and not made under consortium supervision.
-Made of ordinary balsamic vinegar with the addition of reduced grape juice (mosto cotto) in varying proportions, without any aging.
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
These commercial products imitate true traditional balsamic vinegar. They are made of ordinary wine vinegar with the addition of coloring, caramel or thickeners like guar gum or cornflour to artificially simulate the thickness and sweetness of aged Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. To meet IGP requirements, it needs a minimum aging period of only two months (not necessarily in wooden barrels), increasing to three years when labeled as invecchiato (aged). The manufacturing process is highly industrialized, so a medium sized producer can produce hundreds of gallons a day.