One of the favorite and most used condiments in Italy and abroad is Italian balsamic vinegar. It’s used to dress salads, as an ingredient in many dishes and to drizzle on top of foods like strawberries and Parmesan cheese.
In this episode Michele Di Pietro and I chat all about balsamic vinegar. Listen to this episode, "all about Italian balsamic vinegar - the real deal", right here:
There are dozens upon dozens of balsamic vinegar products on the market purporting to be IGP Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. Many of these products are not true Italian balsamic vinegars at all, but instead are wine vinegars with additives, coloring, and flavoring. And yet if you are browsing the shelves in the supermarket trying to determine what balsamic vinegar to purchase it’s almost impossible to determine which vinegars are truly IGP Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. That’s where the Balsamic Vinegar of Modena Consortium comes into play.
A small group of bloggers and journalists had the honor to participate in a weeklong press trip offered by the IGP Balsamic Vinegar of Modena Consortium to help us learn more about this wonderful product. We visited three of Italy’s top IGP Balsamic Vinegar of Modena producers, participated in balsamic vinegar tastings and enjoyed fabulous meals and tours that helped us all to understand the Emilia Romagna region better, and its amazing culinary tradition and heritage. It gave us a wonderful context for understanding IGP Balsamic Vinegar of Modena better. A special thanks to the IGP Balsamic Vinegar of Modena Consortium for their generous and informative tour!
In Italy there are generally two types of consortia: IGP and DOP. IGP stands for protected geographical indication. Each IGP product consortium establishes its own IGP product parameters. Depending on the consortium it may or may not be very strict.
There are two Italian balsamic vinegar consortiums in Italy: a DOP balsamic vinegar consortium and an IGP balsamic vinegar consortium. The more affordable of the two balsamic vinegars that you will most likely see on grocery store shelves is IGP Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. Prices for IGP Balsamic Vinegar of Modena range on average from about $3 to $20.
The Balsamic Vinegar of Modena Consortium and IGP Balsamic Vinegar
The Balsamic Vinegar of Modena Consortium has many important functions like marketing, product screening and assistance to balsamic vinegar producers within the Consortium. It also establishes the parameters that qualify balsamic vinegar as IGP Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. When you browse grocery store shelves you only need to look out for the wording IGP Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. Producers who are members of the Consortium are easy to spot. Their packaging also displays the Consortium logo, a small blue and yellow circle, with the wording “indicazione geografica protetta”.
What are the parameters that qualify a balsamic vinegar as IGP Balsamic Vinegar?
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena must have a series of characteristics to qualify as Consortium-approved IGP Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. These characteristics fall into five categories:
1. The organoleptic characteristics of the final product
2. The technical characteristics of the final product
3. The technical characteristics of the grape must (“mosto”)
4. The acetification and aging process of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
5. The packaging of the final product
Organoleptic characteristics of the end product:
Organoleptic properties are what is perceived via the senses: taste, sight, smell and touch. Touch in this case is the mouth-feel and texture of the balsamic vinegar on the palate.
It must have:
- A clear and brilliant appearance
- A brown and intense color
- A sweet & sour and balanced flavor
- A slightly acetic and delicate aroma, persistent, with woody overtones
Technical characteristics of the end product:
- The density must be no lower than 1.06 at a temperature of 20°C
- The alcohol strength must be no more than 1.5% by volume
- It must have a minimum acidity of 6%
- The total sulphur anhydride content must be no more than 100 mg per liter
- Ash (the mineral content in the balsamic vinegar) should be no less than 2.5 per thousand
- The net dry extract should be no less than 30 grams per liter. Net dry extract are the solid parts of the vinegar; the powdery stuff that is left if you remove all water and alcohol from the vinegar. The more net dry extract there is the heavier or thicker the vinegar. Higher dry extract can balance or hide high sugar levels.
- The reducing sugars should be no less than 110 grams per liter. Reducing sugars are a a type of carbohydrate or natural sugar and can change the taste or color of the balsamic vinegar. Reducing sugars react with amino acids when the vinegar is cooked at high temperatures.
Technical characteristics of the grapes and grape must:
- The cooked or concentrated grape must can only come from seven varietals, all typical of the Modena and Reggio Emilia area: Lambrusco, Trebbiano, Sangiovese, Albana, Ancellotta, Fortana, and Montun.
- The grapes don’t have to be grown locally and can be sourced outside of the Emilia Romagna region.
- A minimum of 10% of the wine vinegar, red or white, must be aged a minimum of 10 years.
- The balsamic vinegar product that is sent to be aged should contain a minimum of 20% grape must, which should have:
* A mass or density that is a minimum of 1.24 or greater at a temperature of 20ºC
* Minimum acidity of 8 grams per kg
* Minimum net dry extract of 55 grams per kg
* To achieve the rich brown color that characterizes balsamic vinegar, up to 2% caramel may be added to the grape must.
The acetification and aging process of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena should be aged a minimum of 60 days and up to 3 years. When aged over 3 years it is then labelled as Aged Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.
Acetification and Aging process:
- Acetification can be accomplished in one of the following ways:
- Addition of select bacterial colonies
- Slow acidification with a slow surface method, or “a truciolo” with wood shavings and chips
Following acetification the vinegar should be aged:
- for a minimum of 60 days
- in wood barrels or vats, usually oak, chestnut, juniper or mulberry
- in the Modena and Reggio Emilia provinces of the Emilia Romagna region
Following the 60 day aging period a group of technicians and professional testers evaluate the vinegar using organoleptic and technical parameters to assess whether the vinegar meets the required standards to be certified and labeled as a IGP Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.
At this point any additional aging depends on each individual producer. Some may choose to bottle and sell their vinegar right away, others may prefer to age it up to or beyond three years.
The packaging of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena:
- Packaging and bottling can take place outside of the IGP areas of the Modena and Reggio Emilia provinces in the Emilia Romagna region, but:
- the packaging must say Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, and
- it must say IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta)
- if the vinegar is aged more than three years it must also say that it is Aged Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (invecchiato)
- if the producer is part of the Consortium it can display the Consortium logo
- Packaging can be in glass, wooden, earthenware and terracotta containers of various shapes and sizes that range from ¼ liter up to 5 liters.
- Sometimes you’ll also find small plastic single-dose packets of 25 milliliters for sale.
- IGP Balsamic Vinegar of Modena for professional use is sold in 5 liter bottles, or 2 liters for plastic containers.
Other Balsamic Vinegars and Products
That being said there are other delicious Italian balsamic vinegar products on the market, including balsamic vinegars made outside of Italy. The important thing is to pay close attention to the ingredient list for each vinegar to be sure it doesn’t contain undesirable ingredients and additives.
You will also develop your own taste preferences, and might use different balsamic vinegars for different purposes. Sampling and tasting will hone down which balsamic vinegars you prefer.
Balsamic vinegars can have a wide range of tastes ranging from sweet to tangy. The flavor depends on a variety of factors like the grapes used, the production and aging process and the flavor each individual producer wants to achieve.
Balsamic pearls are delicious and great to add to risottos and other dishes.
What is Balsamic Reduction or Glaze?
Both of these products are balsamic vinegar that has been cooked and reduced by one third or more yielding a thicker, sweeter product to use as a condiment. You can purchase balsamic reduction and balsamic glaze or reduce it at home.
What is DOP Traditional Balsamic Vinegar?
IGP certification is a highly respected certification, but less restrictive than DOP, protected designation of origin. DOP culinary products in Italy are part of entirely different consortia with different and generally more restrictive parameters and characteristics. The DOP certification guarantees that the culinary product is locally grown, produced and packaged, along with a strict set of guidelines and parameters for the product and its packaging.
There are two DOP consortia in Emilia Romagna for traditional balsamic vinegar, one in Modena and one in Reggio Emilia. I have also spent time with the Modena DOP consortium and have visited a number of individual traditional balsamic vinegar producers.
As far back as the Roman times Romans were cooking grape must and making what eventually came to be known as traditional balsamic vinegar. Cicero, Pliny and Virgil all wrote about this vinegar.
Although traditional Italian balsamic vinegar has been made by families in the Modena and Reggio Emilia area for many centuries, it was only in 1967 that the traditional balsamic vinegar consortium was formed. This DOP consortium, just like the IGP consortium, establishes the rules and guidelines for the production, aging and packaging of the vinegar.
How is DOP Traditional Balsamic Vinegar made?
DOP traditional balsamic vinegar is made with locally cultivated Trebbiano, Lambrusco, Spergola and Berzemino grapes. Absolutely no other ingredients are used. The grapes are picked, crushed and then the crushed grapes are cooked outdoors in open vats over an open flame until the must is reduced to a 30 to 50% concentration, depending on the choice of the individual producer.
After this, once the grape must is decanted, it begins its period of natural fermentation and acetification. At this point the must enters into a period of natural transformation and aging, and begins to take on the wonderful characteristics that make it traditional balsamic vinegar.
The final phase in traditional balsamic vinegar production is aging that takes place in partially uncovered wood barrels, for many years; anywhere upwards of twelve years.
The vinegar is placed in a line of six to eight barrels of decreasing sizes known as a batteria, or battery. The smallest is about ten liters and the largest about 75 liters. Once per year some vinegar is taken from the smallest barrel, bottled and aged further. The vinegar removed is replaced with vinegar from the next largest barrel, and it’s replenished with vinegar from the third largest barrel. This continues on up to the largest barrel which is replenished with some of the new year's vinegar.
Each wooden barrel is made from a different wood, and each wood offers a unique contribution to the organoleptic characteristics of the vinegar. Chestnut is tannin-rich and gives traditional balsamic vinegar its rich, dark color. Mulberry helps the vinegar thicken and acquire its syrup-like consistency more rapidly, juniper provides a resinous essence, cherry sweetens it and oak give the vinegar its vanilla flavor tones.
Traditional balsamic vinegar has a well-balanced flavor, a perfect harmony between sweet and sour, with a pleasant and persistent aroma and a rich, deep brown color and a syrupy consistency.
A few factors make the production of DOP traditional balsamic vinegar almost impossible to reproduce outside of the DOP geographic area. The indigenous grapes and local soil bacteria are key, coupled with the unique climactic conditions of the area.
As traditional balsamic vinegar is aged in attics with very little insulation the vinegar undergoes an interplay of natural bacterial and acetification changes as the temperature changes throughout the year. Summers can be extremely hot and then temperatures drop abruptly, all conditions that favor the aging of the traditional balsamic vinegar in its unique and characteristic way.
How is DOP Traditional Balsamic Vinegar Bottled?
Traditional balsamic vinegar must be bottled in 100 milliliter spherical glass bottles with a square base. Each bottle is then sealed and numbered. The bottling year is never indicated. The vinegar is either affinato, meaning it’s been aged a minimum of 12 years, or it’s extravecchio which means it’s been aged a minimum of 25 years. Extravecchio bottles have a characteristic gold seal, and affinato a silver seal.
What are the culinary uses for DOP Traditional Balsamic Vinegar?
Traditional balsamic vinegar is not meant to be used in cooking, if for no other reason than its price. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar carries an average price per liter of about €400, on up to €3,000 for a very prized bottle. Some balsamic vinegars are so invaluable that they would never be sold.
Traditional balsamic vinegar should be used as a condiment and enjoyed drop by drop on foods like fruit, Parmesan cheese, or tagliata. Lightly drizzle on salad with a good quality extra virgin oil, or try it on Parmesan cheese, strawberries, frittate, roast pork, in risotto, on vanilla gelato, or pears and cheese.
Each producer’s vinegar is different, with a unique mother vinegar that has developed over many years, from its own unique mixture of natural bacteria.
Families in Emilia-Romagna produce their own traditional balsamic vinegar
In addition to commercial producers almost every family in Modena and Reggio Emilia has its own private production of traditional Italian balsamic vinegar, that frequently dates back centuries. The vinegar is produced for family use or to offer as gifts to special guests. You may not know that a family has its own traditional balsamic vinegar until you reach a certain level of friendship, and it’s then that you might be offered a bottle of their prized balsamic vinegar as a gift!
There’s a saying in this area that families don’t own their traditional balsamic vinegar, but rather it owns them. A mother vinegar can last for centuries, much longer than the family members who painstakingly take care of their traditional balsamic vinegar, and decant and bottle it year after year. A family’s traditional balsamic vinegar is considered to be part of a family’s most valuable assets and is often included in last wills and testaments. One item that was often included in a bride’s dowry was the family traditional Italian balsamic vinegar. To this day it’s often offered as a prized wedding gift.
Try this recipe for Steamed Cauliflower Florets with a Balsamic, Anchovy and Caper Dressing.
Bologna is the culinary epicenter of the Emilia-Romagna region so you'll definitely enjoy this Best of Bologna day trip!
Learn more about Italian DOP and IGP products right here.
And here's a great Olive Oil and Vinegar Lover’s Cookbook.
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