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Learn - Balsamic Vinegar 101


BALSAMIC VINEGAR

... WHAT IS IT?

The price and quality of balsamic vinegar varies widely, but is determined by how it is made, what it is made with, where it is made, who makes it and who authenticates it.

Authentic traditional balsamic only comes from two places: Modena or Reggio Emilia, Italy. Traditional Balsamic is highly regulated and controlled. It is produced in small quantities and is sold at a much higher price point than non–traditional balsamic. It is labeled as either aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena or aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia and is adorned with the appropriate seal and certificate of origin, and ensconced in a specially shaped bottle.

Most of the products on the market labelled balsamic are not authentic traditional balsamic but condimento or industriale. This does not mean that they are not flavorful, useful, and appropriate. It also does not mean that they did not originate in Italy.

Authentic Traditional Balsamic only comes from two places: Reggio Emilia or Modena, Italy.

HOW IS AUTHENTIC TRADITIONAL BALSAMIC MADE?

Grapes are pressed and filtered and the juice (called the “must”) is boiled over an open flame in an open vessel until it is reduced by about 50%. At this point it is stored in tanks until the process of fermentation allows the alcohol level to reach a certain value. Acetic acid bacteria are then added and promote the browning process.

The thickened mixture (the “base vinegar”) is placed in different types of wooden barrels of various sizes (from very large to very small). Barrels are constructed of different types of woods to impart different flavor characteristics (e.g. cherry wood makes it sweet, and oak is typically used in the smaller barrels.)

The barrels are then stored to begin the aging process. Conditions are very important in the formation of Balsamic Vinegar as warm temperatures allow for browning, evaporation, and concentration; whereas, cooler temperatures promote decantation and pureness. Thus, a temperature variance from warm to cold and back (like in an attic) is a desirable environment for creating balsamic.

Eventually, evaporation will reduce the amount of liquid in each barrel. Once a year, the barrels are “topped off” from a barrel one size larger. Thus, over time, liquid gets moved from the largest barrels to the smallest (by moving through an entire series of barrels), imparting an abundance of concentrated flavors as it goes. Five different types of wood are necessary to classify a balsamic as traditionale. The concentrated balsamic remaining in the smallest barrels (after an extended aging period) is bottled and sent to market (or kept for personal consumption).

How to tell - TRADITIONAL BALSAMIC VINEGAR FROM REGGIO EMILIA (ACETO BALSAMICO TRADIZIONALE DI REGGIO EMILIA)

Traditional Balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia (aceto balsamico tradizionale di Reggio Emilia) must be made from grapes originating locally. These include Trebbiano, Occhio di Gatto, Spergola, Berzemino, Marani, Salamino, Maestri, Montericco, Sorbara and Ancellotta.

Additionally, it must be assessed by master tasters who determine if it is worthy to be called Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Reggio Emilia and if so, categorize it according to three “levels”: aragosta (lobster red), argento (silver), or oro (gold). Aragosta has been aged a minimum of 12 years, Argento 18 years, and Oro a minimum of 25 years.

It must be contained in a special 100ml bottle adorned with a wax seal and have a seal of authenticity from the Consortium of Producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegars from Reggio Emilia. The D.O.P. seal (designation of protected origin) ensures the product is actually from Reggio Emilia.

Traditional Oro label from Reggio Emilia: note the shape of the bottle, the red wax top, the Reggio Emilia seal, and the numbered label directly below it. The seal to the right is the designation of protected origin.

How to tell - TRADITIONAL BALSAMIC VINEGAR FROM MODENA (ACETO BALSAMICO TRADIZIONALE DI MODENA): 

Traditional Balsamic from Modena must be assessed by a panel of five expert tasters. The “standard” aging time is twelve years and that which is aged over twenty–five years is adorned with the words “Extra Vecchio.” It must be contained in a special 100ml bottle adorned with a seal of authenticity from the Consortium of Producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegars from Modena. The D.O.P. seal (designation of protected origin) ensures the product is actually from Modena.

Traditional Balsamic from Modena: note the onion shape of the bottle (characteristic of Modena) and the numbered seal across the top. The seal to the right is the official seal of the Modena Consortium.

WHAT IS CONDIMENT BALSAMIC? WHY IS IT LESS EXPENSIVE?

Aceto Balsamico di Modena (Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) is commonly used to denote condiment balsamic that is a less expensive version of the traditional. This type of balsamic is considered “condimento” because it did not undergo the stringent process required to be considered traditional. It may have used only three woods instead of five, been released earlier than 12 years, or come from a region outside of Reggio Emilia or Modena. As a result, the price is much lower. 

THE BALSAMIC AT THE GROCERY STORE IS $5. WHAT’S UP WITH THAT?

What you’re looking at is “industriale” grade balsamic. It's tough to even call it balsamic. This is a mass produced substance that is really nothing more than vinegar, often with a caramel coloring and sugar added to make it appear thicker than it actually is. As a marketing ploy, manufacturers will actually print a large number on the bottle such as an “8” or a “12”. This number means absolutely nothing! It is simply a gimmick to make the uninformed consumer think they are getting a product aged for that period of time.

What about our 25 Star?

How many years is the 25 Star Balsamic aged?

In Italy, the only balsamic that is allowed to state an age is a DOP product. To obtain DOP status, the balsamic must be aged a minimum of 12 years and is controlled by the Consortium for approval and bottling into a unique 3.4 oz. bottle. These bottles usually cost between $75 and $120 each. There is only a small amount of this product produced each year. In fact an entire battery of barrels would result in approximately 5 liters of product.

Therefore, a new product was started called Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (today IGP). This commercial product is made from mixing concentrated or cooked grape must and wine vinegar and then aging this blend in wooden casks. There are two categories of age within the PGI regulation, the minimum required aging in wood is set forth at 2 months or at the second level of aging in wood for 3 years so according to PGI ruling, no balsamic can be said to be aged more than 3 years. In addition, all labels that bear the PGI logo, must be approved by the Third Party auditors of the PGI.

More important than the age in this type of balsamic is that the quality and the quantity of the grape must and the wine vinegar used in the production are crucial to the quality of the finished product.

Our 25 Star Balsamic has a minimum of 80% concentrated grape must and aged red wine vinegar.

If Beyond The Olive authenticates their 25 Star is from Modena, Italy, why not put the  PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) seal on the bottle?

Currently, the PGI seal can only be put on products where the facility is audited by a third party auditor from Italy. Full traceability is required which means that if we were to become certified, we would have to pay for an auditor to come from Italy and we just aren't big enough to do that.  Currently, there is only one company in the entire world outside of Italy that is certified.

Is there sugar added to your 25 Star Balsamic?

No. The sweetness of our balsamic is due to the high amount of concentrated grape must in our product. The more grape must, the thicker and sweeter it becomes.

How does your 25 Star Balsamic compare to the “Up to 18 Year Old Balsamic” that is found in many olive oil stores?

Taste... for over 10 years, our customers keep refilling their bottles and if it wasn't one of the most delicious products out there, you all wouldn't be coming back.

However - to the question - if the product was really aged 18 years, the price would prohibit the average person from being able to afford it as would sell for at least $25/ounce. Secondly, according to PGI rules, it could only be called “aged” if it is really a certified product. 

We do not claim an age on our product (but know it is in barrels at least three years) as we follow the law and guidelines set in place by the consortium. However, we feel that our product stands for itself. We invite you to compare the products side by side and decide for yourself which product is superior.

What type of barrels is the 25 Star Balsamic aged in?

Slovanian Oak.

What makes your 25 Star Balsamic so thick?

Our special quality of grape must give the finished goods a thicker consistency This balsamic is made exclusively for us and to our specification. It contains a minimum of 80% high quality must and wine vinegar that is aged a minimum of 10 years. The resultant product is naturally thick and sweet.

How is the 25 Star White Balsamic made and how does it differ from the dark?

The product is produced in the same manner with the same ingredients as the dark balsamic. The difference is that for the white, they choose the lightest batch of grape must that they have and then they filter the resultant product which lightens it further.