Balsamic vinegar from Modena is one of Italy’s culinary treasures, often fetching prices upward of $100 for a 3-ounce bottle. If the sour brown liquid found at the local salad bar has caused you to wrinkle your nose and wonder what all the fuss was about, chances are you haven’t tasted the real thing.
The best balsamicos are rich, thick and have a complexity of flavor that goes across the spectrum from sweet to tart. Just a few drops make an excellent accent to appetizers, entrees, and even desserts (it’s fabulous drizzled over vanilla ice cream or strawberries.)
Balsamic’s home turf of Modena is a small city in northern Italy located in the Emilia-Romagna region, which is also the birthplace of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Prosciutto di Parma ham and what we call Bolognese sauce (if you go to Bologna, they’ll probably just call it ‘ragu’). Similar to many European wines, true balsamic vinegar is made under strict production criteria. There are three levels of quality, although it’s not as simple as ‘good/better/best.’ The lines get a little blurry between government label requirements and artisanal versus bulk producers.
Tradizionale: The best of the best
The best product is the easiest to spot. Officially known as “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena,” it is aged for either 12 or 25 years and carries a DOP designation, a European Union classification identified by a red and yellow seal of authenticity. Every aspect of production of DOP balsamic is tightly controlled according to the Consorzio Tutela ABTM (the governing body that inspects and grades the vinegar).
The balsamic may contain only one ingredient: the filtered juice from crushed Modenese grapes. There are seven approved varieties, although trebbiano and lambrusco are the most popular. Finally, the balsamico must age in wooden casks to earn the affinato (12-year-old) or extra vecchio (25-year-old) grades. But those strict rules aren’t enough; an anonymous tasting by the Consorzio is the final determining factor.
A visit to an acetaia (balsamic vinegar’s equivalent to a winery) in the Modena countryside helps to clarify why 25-year vinegar fetches such high prices. Like fine wines, balsamic ages in wooden casks, where the type of wood, the cask size, and the length of aging contribute to the overall flavors and richness of color.
However, while wines age in a closed system to preserve the fermentation process, balsamic is allowed some evaporation (a small opening in each cask is covered with a linen ‘screen’).
“Ninety percent of the grape juice we start with evaporates during the aging process,” says Claudio Stefani, CEO of Acetaia Giuseppe Giusti, whose family has been producing balsamico for more than 400 years. He goes on to state, “Even then, only 50% of the final product sent to the Consorzio for evaluation is certified DOP status.”
By periodically transferring the vinegar to smaller and smaller wooden casks – and varying the type of wood used – producers can control the evaporation rate and generate more sophisticated flavor notes. “We refer to them as primary, secondary and tertiary flavors,” says Stefani. “It’s similar to the terroir associated with wine production. Early on, the vinegar tastes like tart fruit. However, over time the tartness softens and deeper flavors emerge – those from the environment in which the grapes were grown.”
The middle ground
If only a small percentage of an acetaia’s production qualifies for DOP status, what happens to the rest?
“Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” is the second tier of ranking, carrying a blue and yellow E.U. seal indicating PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status. Vinegar bearing this seal allows for a broad range of specifications, resulting in a wider range of quality – and prices. Navigating a purchase of vinegar in this category can be almost as murky as the product itself.
Regulations published in the Official Journal of the European Union stipulate that PGI vinegar must be produced in Modena, but can be a blend of grape juice and red wine vinegar (made from a different process), and aged a minimum of 60 days. According to Stefani, “there is a huge difference between producing vinegar that barely complies with these minimum standards, and those that are nearly DOP quality.”
Artisanal producers such as Giusti create custom blends that balance age and flavor with price. Some longer-aged blends are developed for use as an accent to foods, a less expensive cousin to the flagship DOP product. Other less-aged blends are perfect for cooking. Despite the wide variation in the blends, all fall under the PGI labeling umbrella. Producers use an in-house labeling system to distinguish between blends; Giusti offers its line of 1- to 5- gold medals. Other producers might use colors, such as “red label” or “black gold.” Prices in the U.S. typically range from about $10 to $50 for a 250ml bottle.
And then there are those produced to the bare minimum standard. Because vinegar aged for the minimum 60 days will not develop the characteristic brown hue, and are likely to still look more standard red wine vinegar, producers add caramel color. Since they haven’t had time to evaporate, they are thinner and more tart than their aged counterparts – in short, nothing special. It’s rare for an artisanal producer to sell such “rapid production” vinegar. Stefani says they tend to be found in private label versions for large volume users, such as supermarket brands. He warns, “If you see a cheap bottle of PGI vinegar, check the ingredients on the label for caramel color. It won’t be very high quality balsamico.”
Condimento: The wild west
Lastly, there is the condimento category. This is where everything that doesn’t fit into DOP or PGI falls. It’s the “wild west” of vinegar, and the range in quality is huge. Interestingly, artisanal producers make several condimento products, many of which are quite tasty. It’s their chance to play around with flavors outside the bounds of the regulations. Giusti makes balsamic with fig, raspberry or truffle; many producers make a white balsamic, which is light and marries well with fish. Several also make balsamic glazes, where sugar is added to less-aged balsamico to add some sweetness and that desired thick, syrupy consistency. It won’t be as complex as the top-of-the-line stuff, but it’s also a fraction of the cost.
How does the average consumer know what to choose when standing in the supermarket or specialty store? Claudio Stefani recommends tasting it first, if possible. “If you’re just looking at labels, rule out anything with caramel color added – it will be bulk manufactured and not very good,” he says. It also helps to seek out artisanal producers. While you might not want to spring for the traditionale, the rest of their blends are probably better than private labeled product. A list of producers can be found at the Balsamic Vinegar of Modena Consortium website. And if you can swing it, consider splurging for the good stuff; used sparingly, it will last for years. Just don’t forget to pick up some ice cream and strawberries.
*This article was originally published in January 2018.