Balsamic Vinegar’s Manufacturing Process

Reginald SmithAll About Vinegar, Balsamic Vinegar, Regional Vinegars8 Comments

See part I on the history of balsamic and part II on the types of balsamic

 

Balsamic vinegar’s manufacturing process depends heavily on the type of balsamic as mentioned in the previous post. While almost all varieties use wine vinegar, even the presence of grape must is not a given with generic balsamic vinegar or balsamic condiments. We will explain the production of each from the most to least expensive.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (TBV) of Modena and Reggio Emilia

This balsamic vinegar is the stereotypical “slow process” produced vinegar. Produced only entirely in the regions of Modena and Reggio Emilia, TBV is made only from grape must, fermented over decades to vinegar.

Regarding the grape must, traditionally grapes of the Trebbiano and Lambrusco varieties are used. Grape must is created by taking grape juice and concentrating it, through evaporation or other methods, to a thick, sugary syrup called grape must, or cotto mosto. This grape must can then be cooked to carmelize it some to add texture or flavor. The grape must, cooked or uncooked, is then transferred to a large special barrel called the badessa where it undergoes alcoholic and acetic acid fermentation over several weeks or months.

Cotto mosto being concentrated by heat

Cotto mosto being concentrated by heat

After the grape must has become vinegar and attained the right acidity, it is transferred from the badessa to the first barrel of the batteria. A batteria is a sequence of 5-7 sequentially smaller wooden barrels used for aging. Each barrel is typically made of a different wood to impart flavor. For example the sequence of woods in the barrels could be oak, chestnut, cherry, juniper, mulberry, and acacia. The new vinegar is placed in the first barrel which is filled almost to the brim. There is a hole on the top of the barrel for air circulation which is covered by a cloth fixed in place by a piece of wood, or more traditionally, a river stone.

Over the years, part of the contents of each barrel are transferred to the next smaller barrel while newer vinegar takes its place in the previous barrel. After the aging is completed, vinegar is taken from the smallest barrel and bottled for sale. This aging process takes at least 12 years (or 2 years per barrel on average) and requires a large amount of vinegar in various stages of production for even modest annual sales.

The final step in traditional balsamic vinegar making is an official panel that judges the sensory and taste aspects of each lot of vinegar produced by each acetaia that wants to use the PDO designation. The vinegar is then assigned a category based on quality that is used for pricing. For TBV of Modena there are two quality categories and for TBV of Reggio Emilia there are three categories.

A balsamic battery

A balsamic battery

Balsamic vinegar of Modena (BVM)

Balsamic vinegar of Modena (BVM), by far the largest by volume, has a less complicated and more rapid process leading to higher production volumes and cost savings. Unlike TBV, BVM can use a mix of wine vinegar with added grape must to make balsamic vinegar. Since the acidity must be 6%, typically BVM starts with wine vinegar between 8-12% acidity with grape must added directly for the correct texture and flavoring while maintaining acidity. In addition, up to 2% caramel can be added based on taste, texture, and cost considerations.

Typically for BVM, wine vinegar is produced with modern, high volume processes from relatively cheap grape wine stock. This is mixed with mass produced grape must and caramel to get the right flavor. The final step, aging, is only done in one tank or barrel. The minimum time is 60 days with “aged” vinegar being three years. In honesty, the 60 day aging is not that much different from other vinegar production processes worldwide so only adds a minimum of flavor though it can improve flavoring if oak barrels are used rather than steel tanks.

Generic balsamic vinegar and balsamic condiments

Generic balsamic vinegar and vinegar condiments have the cheapest and least complex production processes. They also have huge leeway with ingredients. General balsamic vinegar will use wine vinegar as a base, just like BVM, and for texture and flavor they often use caramel but in higher quantities than BVM. Generic balsamic vinegars also have no aging requirements. Balsamic condiment ingredients are even looser and are not limited to either grape must or caramel and often use other sweeteners like glucose syrup (from any source like sugar beets) or thickeners like corn starch or xantham gum. Grape must volume can be very limited and there is no legal requirement.

Balsamic vinegar prices and market

The rise of balsamic vinegar has made some of its varieties extremely valuable. There is not a large and liquid market for expensive vinegar similar to the global market for fine wine. Wine is widely traded and stored as an asset class and even tracked by its own market index, the Liv-Ex. However, some types of aged traditional balsamic vinegar have sold for substantial sums. In 2007, at the first International Auction of Balsamic Vinegar in Modena, a 100mL bottle (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, unknown aging) was sold for 1,800 Euros (about $2,500 at the exchange rate then). This would make this vinegar cost about $25,000 per liter or almost $95,000 per gallon! At the same auction, a nine barrel batteria of aged balsamic vinegar sold for 31,000 Euros (about $43,000). Three other family batches of balsamic vinegar were purchased by Chinese chefs from Shanghai demonstrating the global pull balsamic has obtained.

Of course these are extreme cases but traditional balsamic vinegar of substantial aging frequently is sold between $50 – $250 for 100 mL to 250 mL bottles. However, the cheapest balsamic vinegar, the IGP designation balsamic vinegar of Modena, has taken the supermarkets of the world by storm retailing under $10. It is commonly found by brands such as Colavita or Alessi but also increasingly common as private label store brands.

In addition, instead of bottling in Italy, balsamic vinegar is being increasingly exported in 24,000 liter Flexitanks (giant plastic bladders), just like wine imports, so that companies in the importer country can bottle and private label as they see fit with no repackaging. Along with the rise in popularity of olive oils, many shops selling flavored olive oils and balsamic vinegars, such as “Oil & Vinegar” or “F. Oliver’s” have opened catering to adventurous lovers of oil and vinegar. Oil & Vinegar stores, all local franchises, take advantage of scale having the Dutch parent company, Assisi BV ship in bulk and assist in distribution in the USA.

Unfortunately, with such popularity and high pricing comes adulteration and fraud. Many manufacturers will use white vinegar or even industrial acetic acid colored with caramel or cane syrup to make a cheap ‘balsamic’. In addition, the relatively high margins of balsamic vinegar have attracted organized crime syndicates across Europe which use cheap vinegar, or even synthetic acetic acid, colored and flavored with substances like caramel to sell fake balsamic vinegar to unwitting customers.

To combat fraud in vinegar, new modern techniques have been developed to essentially “fingerprint” regional vinegar varieties and look for the presence (or absence) of certain chemical compounds to determine whether vinegar is authentic. The company Eurofins, founded by a French scientist father & son team, has developed an extensive database of analyses of PDO and IGP vinegars from around Europe and the rest of the world.

While no batch of vinegar is identical, by creating a general fingerprint of the vinegar varieties based on grapes, flavor chemicals produced in aging, and the presence of adulterants, vinegar samples can now be sent for fraud analysis and unscrupulous companies can be ejected from the supply chain.

8 Comments on “Balsamic Vinegar’s Manufacturing Process”

  1. Just came by this site. Thanks for some interestimg information. The testing for fraud analyisis is a very good step. Good news.

  2. Hopefully you see this. I am considering making a balsamic vinegar at home. Or at least, balsamic like. The question I have involves the alcoholization and acetication of the mosto cotto. Is it done wild in the barrel? Do you add yeast and then a mother later?

    I say balsamic like because I don’t have access to the various woods but I can get toasted oak barrels in the proper sizes. Thanks in advance!

    1. Hi, thanks for your comment. The mosto cotto is usually fermented to alcohol in a separate vat called a badessa to about 6-7% alcohol. Then raw vinegar is added to get the acidity to 1.5-2.5% and fermentation of vinegar begins in the badessa as well though it can also occur in a separate wood barrel. Once the vinegar is complete it is aged in the various woods of the batteria.

      Here is the thing about wild vs. cultivated yeast fermentation: typical brewing yeast will not work since the mosto cotto sugar content is so high. You typically need one of the following: Saccharomycodes ludwigii, Zygosaccharomyces rouxii, or Candida stellata. These are wild but I also have some must I fermented I can send you to help “feed” your fermentation if it helps.

  3. Excellent blog and website you have here i must say. This is by far the most comprehensive blog and website i have found regarding vinegars. Keep up the great work. If you do not mind i just have got a couple of questions regarding the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar made with just Grape Must only (so with no Wine Vinegar added) as it is difficult to really find out much information about this.

    Does the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar work in the same way as other Vinegar in regards to acidity? So like for an example would a 5% Acidity version be 95% Water mixed with 5% Traditional Balsamic Vinegar or does this work differently? Can you lower the acidity of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar by mixing it with Water like with other Vinegar types? I am just wondering due to the fact that it is made very differently with no alcohol involved? But i presume it still has a similar acidity?

    Are there any manufacturers who make the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar but age the vinegar for any less than 12 years? I know it would probably have to be labelled differently in some countries but i am wondering if it is possible to age it for less than 12 years? What is the bare minimum it could be aged for? Would just one year of aging work and taste fine and would it still be Vinegar or is there a minimum it needs for it to actually turn in to Vinegar first?

    Are there any manufacturers who make the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar outside of Italy? Obviously in some countries it would have to be labelled differently but i was just wondering if it gets made anywhere else?

    Do the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar come in any sizes other than just a tiny 100ML bottle? Like are there any manufacturers who will sell a large 1L bottle?

    Finally what is the very cheapest Traditional Balsamic Vinegar that you can buy? I have looked everywhere but the cost is extortionate? The cheapest that i have found is about 50.00 for the 12 year aged version and about 100.00 for the 25 year aged version and both of them are only a tiny 100ML bottle which seems a crazy price? Do you know what is the absolute cheapest you can buy?

    Thank you very much for any information you have in regards to these questions.

    1. Thanks for your compliments! Please see my answers below in non-italicized text

      Does the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar work in the same way as other Vinegar in regards to acidity? So like for an example would a 5% Acidity version be 95% Water mixed with 5% Traditional Balsamic Vinegar or does this work differently? Can you lower the acidity of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar by mixing it with Water like with other Vinegar types? I am just wondering due to the fact that it is made very differently with no alcohol involved? But i presume it still has a similar acidity?

      Let me clarify a couple of things about the traditional balsamic vinegar (TBV) process. First the grape must is converted into alcohol with special yeast to about 6-7% ABV and then this is fermented to vinegar ranging from 4.5-6% acidity. Acidity is measured in grams of acetic acid per 100 mL of balsamic vinegar so 6% acidity is 6 grams of acetic acid in 100 mL of balsamic vinegar.
      You can dilute it with water like other vinegars but because of the special viscosity and high sugar content you will radically change the taste profile (probably not for the better) by diluting it.

      Are there any manufacturers who make the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar but age the vinegar for any less than 12 years? I know it would probably have to be labelled differently in some countries but i am wondering if it is possible to age it for less than 12 years? What is the bare minimum it could be aged for? Would just one year of aging work and taste fine and would it still be Vinegar or is there a minimum it needs for it to actually turn in to Vinegar first?

      The associations in the cities of Modena, Reggio Emilia, and Spilamberto that regulate the TBV production require a minimum aging of 12 years and will certify nothing aged by a shorter period of time. You can get Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (the regular grocery style) for multiple year aging to approximate TBV. You want to find a brand with no caramel in the ingredients and a maximum of grape must and minimum of wine vinegar in the ingredients. A good clue to the grape must content is the sugars in the nutrition fact table. If it has at least 8 g sugar (not total carbs) per 1 Tbsp/15 mL serving, it is likely almost all grape must. Find a brand with 8-10 g per serving sugar and indicates aging for multiple years. Rao’s Homemade Balsamic of Modena was like this I believe but I am not sure if it is on the market any longer.

      Are there any manufacturers who make the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar outside of Italy? Obviously in some countries it would have to be labelled differently but i was just wondering if it gets made anywhere else?

      Due to EU regulations no one can call their balsamic vinegar “Traditional” outside of that made in the Modena region of Italy but there are makers of TBV without that exact name in other places in Italy, Europe, and around the world. In fact, in the USA there is one in New Mexico, Aceto Balsamico de Monticello.
      Do the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar come in any sizes other than just a tiny 100ML bottle? Like are there any manufacturers who will sell a large 1L bottle?

      The TBV associations regulate packaging size and type so the 100 mL bottle is all you will get unless you get a special order from a TBV maker (acetaia)

      Finally what is the very cheapest Traditional Balsamic Vinegar that you can buy? I have looked everywhere but the cost is extortionate? The cheapest that i have found is about 50.00 for the 12 year aged version and about 100.00 for the 25 year aged version and both of them are only a tiny 100ML bottle which seems a crazy price? Do you know what is the absolute cheapest you can buy?

      You cannot get an authentic TBV under $50. It does not exist, especially with shipping from Italy. The best brands are in the $150 or so range. It is expensive but they are aging inventory for 12-25 years so their costs are high as well.

      Let me know if this helps.

  4. Just to answer one of the questions asked in another comment there are actually Balsamic Vinegar made of just 100% Grape Must with no Wine Vinegar added that are not too expensive and fairly easily available in the USA and probably other countries too.

    I know of two brands (Cavalli and Mia Bella) of Balsamic Vinegar which are made from 100% Grape Must with no Wine Vinegar added:

    • Cavalli Balsamic Vinegar:

    https://www.amazon.com/Cavalli-Condiment-Balsamic-Vinegar-8-4-Ounce/dp/B002DZKA8W

    • Mia Bella Balsamic Vinegar:

    https://www.amazon.com/MiaBella-MB1-Balsamic-Vinegar/dp/B00CMGRNAK

    You can buy them both on Amazon or on various other websites. They are available in some supermarkets all throughout the USA too. I believe that Whole Foods do stock both of them as well as i know i have seen them there.

    These are the only ones i can find that are 100% Grape Must with no Wine Vinegar added. They are far cheaper than the “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar” that is aged for 12 years or for 25 years and sold in those tiny 100ML bottles that you end up using all in one go. I must say that i do wish that more Balsamic Vinegar producers would make theirs with 100% Grape Must with no Wine Vinegar added. It really tastes so much better. It does not need to be aged for 12 years or for 25 years like the “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar” is but just simply being made from 100% Grape Must with no Wine Vinegar added is such an improvement over your standard ordinary Balsamic Vinegar that is sold everywhere.

    But i am guessing that Wine Vinegar is cheaper than Grape Must is? I presume that is the reason why the majority of Balsamic Vinegar producers all add some Wine Vinegar to theirs? As i can not think what other reason it would be for? Like many things these days i suppose it is done to make the product cheaper to produce?

    1. Thanks for your detailed comment. I can’t speak to the veracity of the ingredients of the brands you mentioned but I am sure customers can investigate.

      As for grape must, it’s basically all about cost and mass market. Balsamic Vinegar of Modena was created to supply a cheaper balsamic vinegar with a regulated amount of wine vinegar and grape must. That is why it is done–to get a mass produced product.Balsamic vinegar of Modena has to have at least 20% grape must though in addition to at least 10% wine vinegar. It is also aged at least 60 days.

  5. Do you know what it means when some Balsamic Vinegar says something like “One Leaf” or “Two Leaf” or “Three Leaf” or “Four Leaf” etc on the bottle? Is this some sort of grading system? If so what does each grade mean?

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