With roots dating back to ancient Roman times, Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is a unique product with a grand history. Unlike most all other vinegar, Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is made from cooked grape juice rather than from wine. With so many brands of Balsamic Vinegar flooding the United States market at greatly varying price points, there is quite a bit of confusion and misconception concerning how its pricing relates to its production, aging claims and quality. We hope to shed light on some of these misconceptions below.
Production - Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (DOP) vs Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (IGP)
There are two, and only two, recipes recognized by Italian law for Balsamic Vinegar. The first is for Traditional
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (DOP)*. The second is for Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (IGP)**. Each recipe starts with white Trebbiano grapes cultivated around the region of Modena. Each recipe involves crushing the grapes and cooking their juices in copper kettles over high heat in order to caramelize the grape sugars and produce what is known as "cooked grape must". Both recipes also involve the process of aging the cooked grape must in a series or wood barrels over the course of many years; however, the recipes also differentiate at this point.
In the production of Traditional Balsamic Vinger of Modena (DOP) only the cooked grape must is added to a series of wood barrels to age. The cooked grape must is aged for either a minimum of 12 years or a minimum of 25 years. This results in two distinctly sweet, rich, complex qualities of vinegar. Each variety must be approved by a panel of Master Tasters to assure quality and authenticity. Once approved, the 12 year variety is awarded a Red quality seal and the 25 year variety is awarded a Gold quality seal. All bottling and packaging is done by the Consortium that represents Italian Balsamic producers rather than by the actual producer. Each variety is always bottled in identical 100ml (3.4oz) bottles and typically retails between $150 - $300.
In the production of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (IGP) the cooked grape must and a small amount of aged red wine vinegar are added to a series of wood barrels to age for a minimum of two years according to Italian law (or a minimum of three years if the final product will be labeled "aged"). The red wine vinegar inoculates the cooked grape must with acetic bacteria, jump starting the fermentation process. The result is a more consistent and less expensive product that shares the rich sweetness and complex taste characteristics of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (DOP). Because IGP is the most commercially produced variety of Balsamic Vinegar and the laws governing the IGP designation are less stringent than the DOP designation, there are some surprising shortcuts allowed in the production of Balsamic (IGP) that will cause concern for any discerning consumer.
* DOP (Denominazione d'Origine Protetta) or "protected designation of origin" guarantees that a product's quality, recipe and characteristics can be traced back to its geographical origin and requires that all phases of production occur in the designated region of origin. Strict specifications during each phase of production must also be met.
** IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) or "protected geographical information" guarantees that a product's quality, recipe and characteristics can be traced back to its geographical origin and requires that at least one phase of production occurs in the designated region of origin.
Aging - The Barrel System
Here in the United States, it is a prevalent belief that the longer a Balsamic Vinegar has been aged, then the higher its quality. As the number of years listed on the label goes higher, the price of the bottle tends to go higher; but, in reality, Italian law actually forbids listing any age claims on the label of Balsamic Vinegar.
To fully comprehend the reason for this, it is essential to better understand the way the barrel aging system works. Each barrel in the series holds a smaller capacity than the previous barrel in the series. Each year in the aging process, cooked grape must from the new harvest is used to "top up" the largest barrel in the series. The largest barrel is then used to top up the next (smaller) barrel in the series. The topping up process continues in succession until the smallest barrel in the series is topped up. The contents of the smallest barrel ultimately get bottled.
This means that each barrel in the series contains a blend of the newest harvest with all of the previous harvests. For example, a 12 year aged Balsamic would be comprised of cooked grape must from the harvest 12 years ago and each subsequent harvest through and including the newest harvest. So while the barrel itself was indeed part of a 12 year aging process, it is impossible to determine the exact age of the barrel's contents!
Despite the rampant misrepresentation about age claims, aging does play an important role in Balsamic Vinegar quality. After all, it takes time for the cooked grape must to ferment and become concentrated. Aging, however, is certainly not the only factor that effects Balsamic quality.
Quality - More Than Aging
High quality results are dependent upon starting with high quality ingredients, so the single most important factor in Balsamic production is the quality of the grapes. Each bottle of Balsamic contains cooked grape must from different grape harvests over the course of many years, so maintaining quality and consistency from one grape harvest to the next is imperative and can be quite daunting if mother nature decides to intervene.
Cooking the grape must in copper kettles is also a major factor in Balsamic quality. According to Italian law, the grape must always has to be cooked in copper kettles in Balsamic (DOP) production; however, in Balsamic (IGP) production a modern vacuum evaporation method is now allowed to condense and concentrate the grape must. Many producers opt for this method because it is cheaper and more efficient. This commercialized method generates a pale, straw colored grape juice concentrate that requires the addition of caramel color to give it the dark mahogany color of authentic cooked grape must. Caramel color is food coloring, and while it might be allowed (up to 2% by law) it certainly is not listed as an ingredient in the two authentic Balsamic recipes. Caramel color also has a highly controversial history as to whether or not it causes long term health problems. To make matters worse, producers are not required to disclose the use of vacuum evaporation.
Cooking the grape must in copper kettles over a wood fire is not some romantic production technique either. The flames of the open fire conduct extreme heat through the copper, causing the grape sugars in the white Trebbiano grape must to caramelize and change color. Once the aging process begins the color darkens, deepens and intensifies. This results is a time honored, authentic, artisan product that possesses undeniable character and flavor, rather than the thin, watery result of vacuum evaporation and food coloring additives.
Because the Balsamic (IGP) recipe also requires the addition of aged red wine vinegar, blending is another key factor in Balsamic quality. Not only does the red wine vinegar added to inoculate the cooked grape must have to be of the highest quality itself, but the blend of cooked grape must to red wine vinegar that goes into the barrel must remain of a consistent quality from one harvest to the next. Fortunately, a lab analysis can measure the quality and quantity of the blend, making it easier to maintain a consistent flavor profile from harvest to harvest.
Condimento - Flavored and White Balsamic
Because the DOP and IGP designations serve as protected quality standards for the only two recipes Italian law recognizes for authentic Balsamic production, any Balsamic that has had flavor added to it must be classified as a condiment. For example a producer might use his IGP designated Balsamic as the base for his line of naturally flavored vinegar. He cannot market that naturally flavored vinegar as Balsamic (IGP) because once he adds flavor to the Balsamic (IGP) base the production process diverges from the legally recognized quality standard.
In White Balsamic production, the grape must is simmered under high pressure to prevent the grape sugars from caramelizing. The slow cooked grape must is blended with white wine vinegar then aged in wood barrels. The final product is a fruitier, less bodied vinegar that has a sharper flavor and golden color. Despite the many similarities the production process of White Balsamic shares with the production process of Balsamic (IGP), White Balsamic is designated as a condiment because the grape must is cooked in a manner that prevents caramelization.
Any Balsamic product that diverges from the two authentic recipes recognized by Italian law is designated as a condiment regardless of quality or production method. This allows producers to blatantly misrepresent how condiments are made. With no labeling regulation for condiments, a producer can take red wine vinegar add a small amount of vacuum evaporated grape must and synthetic flavoring, then add caramel color, processed sugar and a thickening agent like maltodextrin, bottle it and label it as Flavored Balsamic. That product doesn't have much in common with the Flavored Balsamic created by the producer who naturally flavored his IGP designated Balsamic. Consumers looking at the products on the shelf would never be able to tell the difference between the two without actually reading and understanding the ingredient list.
Here at Savor the Olive, we guarantee that our IGP designated Traditional Style Balsamic is made from white Trebbiano grape must that is cooked down and caramelized in copper kettles over an open fire. The cooked grape must is blended with aged red wine vinegar, then rotated through five different varieties of wood barrels to age for up to 18 years. It contains only cooked Trebbiano grape must and 5% red wine vinegar. When our IGP designated Traditional Style Balsamic has been aged up to 12 years, some of it is used to create our Flavored Dark Balsamic. Each of our Flavored Dark Balsamics contains only cooked Trebbiano grape must, 5% red wine vinegar and all natural flavors. Our White Balsamic is made in the Traditional Style; however, the white Trebbiano grape must is slow cooked under high pressure to prevent the grape sugars from caramelizing before being aged in wood barrels. Our White Balsamic contains only slow cooked Trebbiano grape must and 5% white wine vinegar. Our Flavored White Balsamic contains only slow cooked Trebbiano grape must, 5% white wine vinegar and all natural flavors. All of our Traditional Style Balsamic Vinegar is free of added sugar, caramel color and thickening agents and contains only 2-3 total carbohydrates (represented as the naturally occurring grape sugars) per tablespoon.