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Balsamic Vinegar: What it is and How it is Made

Posted by Rick Petrocelly on

There are several types of Balsamic Vinegar, offered in various price ranges and quality. Unfortunately, mislabeling by many olive oil shops is rampant. Many use the wrong terminology calling their product Traditional when it is not. A large percentage call their product 18 year old or 25 years old, when Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is generally only months old. A favorite trick is to say it is up to 18 years old. They want you to think it is 18 years old, when the term "up to" means anything from 1 day to 18 years. Well what is it?

If a store attempts to sell you a product labeled “Traditional”, “18 year”, or “25 year” Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, in anything other than a stamped, sealed and boxed Giugiaro design 100 ml bottle (shown below), and at price lower than let’s say $60.00, simply ask them to prove it.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar Of Modena: Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia. Also known as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena/Reggio Emilia. This is a highly regulated, expensive ($100 and up per 100 ml product) generally made by crushing and cooking Trebbiano grape must/juice reducing its volume approximately 70% to concentrate the flavors. There is no fermentation, and thus Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena has never been a wine product. The balsamic must is aged in a series of gradually smaller wooden barrels of different kinds of wood for at least 12 years to be called Vecchio, or at least 25 years to be called Extra Vecchio. Other than knowing the minimum age of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, it is illegal in Italy to label any of these products with an age designation. Anyone labeling a product as Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and claiming that it is specifically 12, 18, 25, etc. years old is likely attempting to deceive the buying public.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena in Giugiaro design 100ml bottles

Another clue to the deception process is the bottle. By law, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena comes only in 100ml bottles designed by Giugiaro, and all producers must use the same design. There is a slight difference in the bottle and seal for Traditional Balsamic Vinegar made in Reggio Emilia. Real Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena cannot be used to make a salad; it is too thick and heavy, and will drag your salad greens to the bottom of the bowl.

Balsamic Vinegar of Modena: Note the absence of the word “Traditional”. Most, but not all Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar specialty shops sell this product. Many misinformed or intentionally deceptive stores add the words “traditional” and some, “traditional style” to their descriptions. These shops will also commonly call them 18 year, 22 year, 25 year old. There should not be any age claims, as their entire existence was to produce them in a short period of time and at a price the average person can afford. Most are aged for less than 1 year, and many are aged a few months. There is no designated bottle. Balsamic Vinegars of Modena are best used in salads and as condiments where a modestly thick/dense product is desired.

Rather than aging only pure concentrated grape must the requisite minimum 12 years to reach an appropriate level of acidity, Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is generally made by combining grape must, red wine vinegar, and occasionally caramel color or flavor, and then age their products in wooden barrels for a brief period of time. The best producers and The Olive Tap’s premier producer uses a very high quality grape must, and barrel aged red wine vinegar, with a minimum of a few months up to a year. Others may use poor quality grape must or concentrate, lower quality wine vinegar and natural or artificial color and flavor. Some will add starch or other products to thicken their products artificially. Tasting Balsamic Vinegar of Modena in The Olive Tap stores will provide great insight into the flavor differences between our high quality and other lesser quality Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.

Balsamic Vinegar: Note, when properly labeled the words “of Modena” are absent. This is a product that has not been made under the strict standards of Modena, Italy. Ingredients are not regulated and additives and flavorings can be used at the producer’s discretion. Most are very thin and harsh and highly acidic, resembling wine vinegar. They cost much less to produce, but may be priced high to capitalize on the market for and reputation of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.