Traditional balsamic vinegar is one of those storied Italian gastronomic delights, a dense velvety concoction with deeply concentrated, complex dried fruit flavors offset by just the right amount of tart.
So, I recently had the chance to visit the new headquarters of Acetaia Giusti, the world’s oldest balsamic vinegar producer. As I was recounting the experience, I felt compelled to create a separate post to discuss what exactly “real” balsamic vinegar is. Thanks in part to the late Anthony Bourdain, Modena is always associated with balsamic vinegar, however, some products are not exactly what they seem. It’s not uncommon for salespeople–and even manipulative packaging–to attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of those who do not know what exactly constitutes the “real balsamic vinegar”.
Now by no means do I consider myself a balsamic vinegar expert and I didn’t feel the need to Google and research this intensely…I’m posting solely based on that which I already know as well as what I learned at Acetaia Giusti. So if I omitted something major, please don’t troll me. Thank you!
I realize that what I’m about to write is a bit cliche but I’m going to state it anyway: Balsamic vinegar is not balsamic vinaigrette, that dime-a-dozen supermarket condiment that’s offered as a salad dressing at every chain restaurant from Applebees to the Olive Garden. That being said, plenty of people who–while they might know what exactly balsamic vinegar is–know that balsamic vinegar is indeed a fancy product typical of Italy.
So, here’s the deal. There’s Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP and Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale) of Modena DOP…he latter is the top-notch stuff, Yes there are some industrial versions of the Balsamic Vinegar IGP, but not all of it is “bad” per se…Acetia Giusti’s Banda Rossa IGP is delightful.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is made in the Provence of Modena from one ingredient only: grape must from Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes. All the grapes must have been harvested in Modena and the entire production process takes place in Modena. The balsamic undergoes a meticulous aging process in batteria, similar to the solera sherry-making process. Balsamic is aged in at least five wooden barrels–each progressively smaller than its predecessor–made from different types of wood, all which enhance the flavor of the balsamic and contribute to the final product.
The openings of the unsealed aging barrels are usually covered with a piece of fabric that’s held in place by a rock. Balsamic in each barrel eventually evaporates, so every year the barrels–starting with the smallest–are topped off with vinegar from the larger one beside it, while must from the current harvest is poured into the largest. This continues for 12 years. Once a particular set of barrels has aged at least 12 years, the balsamic inside the smallest barrel is bottled, and that barrel is filled with the balsamic from the barrel next to it, which is then topped off from the preceding barrel and so forth.
However, balsamic vinegar of Modena IGP (the non-traditional stuff) starts with two ingredients: grape must and wine vinegar. The balsamic vinegar of Modena IGP production process is less intricate as the IGP rules are less strict: additives are permitted, grapes don’t have to be grown in Modena, and the single-barrel aging process is a minimum of 60 days (not 12 years). Balsamic vinegar aged for more than three years is known as invecchiato. Now there are some decent iterations, sure, but–again–you have to know what to look for. To start, check the ingredients and make sure there are just two: grape must and wine vinegar. Also, if you’re tasting several, usually, the darker, denser and longer aged, the better.
To know whether or not the balsamic vinegar of Modena is traditional, check out the cap: white means aged at least 12 years; while gold indicates balsamic aged at least 25 years.
In addition to Modena, Reggio Emilia also makes a DOP traditional balsamic vinegar. Their labels: red aged at least 12 years; silver is aged 18 years and gold indicates 25 years or more.