Understanding the Types of Balsamic Vinegar

Reginald SmithAll About Vinegar, Balsamic Vinegar, Regional Vinegars1 Comment

See the first post on the history of balsamic vinegar here

As stated in our last post, a measure of the growth of the balsamic vinegar industry is that as late as 1987, only 3,000 bottles of balsamic vinegar were being produced per year. By 2002, that number had become 100,000 bottles. This represented an average annual growth rate of 26% over a fifteen year period. In 2014 between 86-90 million liters (23-24 million gallons) of balsamic vinegar was produced in Italy. While domestic demand has steadily increased, export has been the largest driver with about 70% of all balsamic vinegar produced destined for export.

The growth of balsamic has not only changed the world of food and cooking, but has also boosted the regional economies of Reggio-Emilia and Modena due to its economic importance. According to the International Trade Centre, in 2015 global exports of vinegar were $563 million, with almost 50% ($271 million) coming from Italy alone. The next largest exporter, the United States, only exported $38 million of vinegar in the same year. The United States also has a trade deficit in vinegar importing $100 million of the Italian output. While the global vinegar trade is dwarfed by the gargantuan global wine trade of $32 billion, Italy is clearly a heavyweight and balsamic vinegar is of great economic importance.

In Reggio-Emilia and Modena, multiple types of balsamic have always existed concurrently. In fact, from surviving recipes as well as from modern chemical analysis of old vinegar samples from the 19th century, it has been confirmed that there was no one dominant process or set of ingredients for making balsamic vinegar. Each acetaia (vinegar maker) has had its own style. However, modern balsamic can be classified by several official designations.

Previous styles of balsamic vinegar varied in the type and preparation of grape must, added spices, types of wood used for aging in the batteria (sequence of wood barrels used to age vinegar) and the length of aging. Modern balsamic vinegar is regulated by a series of designations primarily based on the allowable types of ingredients and the length of the aging period. When we see ‘Balsamic Vinegar of Modena’ or ‘Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena’ most consumers typically ignore the subtle differences and focus on price. However, each designation directly affects the quality and preparation of the vinegar.

The designations of balsamic vinegar have two main features: first a guarantee of the geographic origin (at least in part) of the vinegar and an implicit statement of the type of processing and aging used. For location, two European Union programs known as Protected Designation of Origin (PDO, DOP in Italian) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI, or IGP in Italian) provide guarantees to consumers for the origins of certain specialty products. Like the auditors of the old vinaigriers of Orléans, these designations are attempt to prevent frauds or imitators from claiming geographic affinity with famous products. These designations are hardly limited to vinegar but have become extremely important for balsamic vinegar, sherry vinegar, and other geographically based traditional vinegars.

The DOP is the most strict of the designations and its use requires that all major stages of production and processing occur in the stated geographic area, usually Modena but also Reggio-Emilia. This assures the grape must preparation, alcohol fermentation, acetification, and aging all occur in the general geographic region. The IGP designation is the less strict of the two and only guarantees that one stage of production occurs in the geographic area. This can thus potentially cover grape must from Modena fermented elsewhere or vinegar made in another region but only aged in Modena in traditional casks. The DOP is usually the more expensive of the two.

IGP (top) and DOP (bottom) certification logos. From ISeven Servizi food certification company

IGP (top) and DOP (bottom) certification logos. From ISeven Servizi food certification company

The second designation relates to preparation of vinegar and aging. There are four classifications of balsamic vinegar that both relate to the DOP/IGP designations and aging time as well as ingredients. From the simplest, and cheapest to the most complex and expensive:

  1. Generic balsamic vinegar (AB – aceto balsamico) – This is the most basic designation for balsamic vinegar and does not require any location designation or aging. Fit for mass production, the ingredients can be any combination of wine vinegar, grape must, and sugar. In addition, additives for color, aroma, texture, and preservatives can be added within legal limits. This balsamic often has caramel directly added to the wine vinegar to mimic the taste and texture of balsamic vinegar without the long aging process.
  2. Balsamic glazes, sauces, or condiments (CBA – condimento aceto balsamico) – Again containing a mixture of wine vinegar, sugar, and grape must, these are condiments such as glazes which are designated ‘balsamic’. They can have the same additives to aroma, color, and texture that generic balsamic vinegar contains but also even more like glucose syrup or corn starch.
  3. Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (ABM – aceto balsamico di Modena) – This is the most common balsamic vinegar available which has a geographic designation as well as a required aging period. The geographic designation is IGP for Modena so not all of the processing actually occurs in Modena. The required ingredients are only wine vinegar (at least 10% of the volume) and concentrated grape must that may or may not be cooked (at least 20% of the volume). Caramel can be introduced for color and aroma—but it is the only additive permitted unlike generic balsamic vinegar which allows much more selection for additives. Caramel content also cannot exceed 2%. There can be no additives for texture. In addition, sulfites can be added as a preservative but only below certain limits. Acidity is also relatively high and is required to be at least 6%. Finally, the vinegar must be aged for a minimum of 60 days before bottling and selling. For Balsamic Vinegar of Modena with an “aged” or “extra aged” claim, the minimum aging time is three years.
    1. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (ABT – aceto balsamico tradizionale) – This is the most stringent category and has the highest geographic designation, DOP, for either Modena or Reggio-Emilia. It can only be made with cooked grape must that is fermented in a batteria to vinegar. No extra additives for color, aroma, texture, or preservation are allowed. Finally, the aging process must last at least twelve years. For the “extra aged” claim, the aging process must last at least 25 years. Acidity only has to be above 4.5% or 5% for Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena or Reggio Emilia respectively.
    Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena (left) and Reggio Emilia (right). Source: Wikimedia

    Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena (left) and Reggio Emilia (right). Source: Wikimedia

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