Balsamic Vinegar is a sweetish, syrupy brown vinegar made in Italy made from grapes.
There are three types of genuine Balsamic Vinegar:
- Tradizionale (“traditional”) balsamic vinegar of Modena, made in Modena (“Aceto Tradizionale di Modena”);
- Tradizionale (“traditional”) balsamic vinegar of Reggio Emilia, made in Reggio Emilia (Aceto Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia”);
- Balsamic vinegar of Modena (“Aceto Balsamico di Modena”) made in either Modena or Reggio Emilia.
In the tradizionale versions, no added ingredients are allowed, and the aging requirement is a minimum of 12 years. The “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” product is similar to the two “tradizionale” ones in some ways, but cheaper, because its minimum aging requirement is only 2 months, it is diluted with red wine vinegar, and a caramel colouring may be added. For ease of reference, some refer to it as the “non-traditional” version of Balsamic Vinegar.
Balsamic vinegar of Modena (“Aceto Balsamico di Modena”)
“Balsamic vinegar of Modena” is a European PGI protected name and governed by European laws, which state that it can only be made in Modena or Reggio Emilia, using certain procedures. Producers must be a member of the Consorzio Aceto Balsamico di Modena (Consortium of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.)
To make it, juice is obtained by pressing grapes from any of these grape varieties: Lambrusco, Sangiovese, Trebbiano, Albana, Ancellotta, Fortana and Montuni. The juice is boiled down somewhat to concentrate it. To this juice is then added some “pure” (aka “tradizionale”) Balsamic vinegar that has been aged at least 10 years, and some red wine vinegar. The mixture should ending up being anywhere between 10% to 80% wine vinegar. The lower the % of wine vinegar, the higher the price and quality of the resultant balsamic product. Caramel colouring may be added, but the colouring must not be more than 2% of the mixture. No other ingredients are allowed. It must be aged for at least 60 days in barrels made from oak (preferably sessile oak), chestnut, mulberry or juniper.
The finished product is rated not by the producers’ own association, the “Consorzio Aceto Balsamico di Modena”, but rather by another one: CTAB, the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico di Modena. The resultant pricing will depend on the rating received.
In 2002, CTAB adopted a “Leaf” rating system, created by the “Italian Association of Tasters for Balsamic Vinegar of Mondea (AIB)” for “non-traditional” Balsamic Vinegar. Some producers have not yet bought into this, and don’t display the Leaf ranking on their bottles, but many do. The Leaf system was designed to make it easier for consumers to distinguish between types and uses of “non-traditional” Balsamic Vinegar, given that the products can vary so widely owing to the wide range of wine vinegar allowed.
|Close to or at the max of the 80% red wine vinegar allowed.
|Thin. The taste and sourness of the red wine vinegar will come through. Good for salad dressings and everyday use
|The sweetness of the balsamic starts to assert itself over the red wine vinegar. To many people’s tastes, too sweet for salad dressing use. Suitable for marinades and as a condiment on steamed vegetables, etc.
|The price generally doubles in the move from a 2 leaf rated product to a 3 leaf one. Sweet, syrupy and full-bodied. For drizzling on roasted meats (such as lamb or beef) or on fish, for use in sauces and gravies.
|Syrupy, thick, full-bodied, with complex flavour and only a hint of acidic. Best used as a condiment rather than an ingredient, drizzled on fruits, cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano, cake, ice cream, etc. Best grade unless you move into the Tradizionale range.
The “non-traditional” Balsamic Vinegar can be sold in glass, wood, ceramic or terracota containers. Plastic containers are allowed if the intended customer is a commercial one (restaurant, food manufacturer, etc.) While the production and aging must be done in Modena or Reggio Emilia, the packaging can be done outside those areas. If the maker chooses to age the product in wooden casks or wooden containers for three or more years, they may add the term ‘invecchiato’ (aged) to the label.
Though termed by some “non-traditional”, makers of this Balsamic Vinegar claim that this production method has just as much history behind it as the Tradizionale. There are various family recipes dating back to the 1600s envisaging Balsamic Vinegar being the result of mixing red wine vinegar with either “traditional” pure Balsamic Vinegar, or with various proportions of uncooked grape must and cooked grape must. In fact, some attribute the foundation of there being two different types of Balsamic Vinegar — with red wine, and without — to recipes from two different families, the Agazzotti family and the Giusti family. The Giusti family’s production method involved the addition of red wine; that of the Agazzotti family did not. The Agazzotti family’s method was documented in an 1863 letter send by a lawyer, Francesco Agazzotti, to Ottavio Ottavi of Casale Monferrato who asked for advice on how to best put a cellar in. His recipe called for only Trebbiano grapes to be used, reducing volume by cooking by 20 to 30%, then aging for at least 12 years. The Giusti family recipe, which they dated to at least the 1600s, was revealed to a Count Giorgio Gallesio, who documented it in 1839. Gallesio in fact documented the two different methods he’d found of making Balsamic Vinegar: making it from just cooked must, and making it from cooked, fermented must and wine vinegar. Gallesio pronounced both types “excellent.”
“Non-traditional” makers say that their versions of Balsamic Vinegar would have been the ones that people used for everyday use.
© Denzil Green
Tradizionale Balsamic vinegar of Modena and of Reggio Emilia
Balsamic Vinegars labelled “Traditional” or “Tradizionale” are European PDO protected products and governed by European laws. They are made from pure cooked grape must, with no added items of any kind allowed.
The vinegar can only legally be made in the Modena and Reggio regions of Italy, and producers must be a member of one of three Consortia:
- Consortium of the Producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (“Consorzio Tra Produttori di Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena”);
- Consortium to Safeguard the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (“Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena”, aka CTAB);
- Consortium of Producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia (“Consorzio Tra Produttori di Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia”).
These Tradizionale versions are more expensive because of the aging and purity requirements for them. As well, members of the Consortia are only allowed to make so much each, so that the selling price isn’t impacted by larger quantities on the market place. Expensive Balsamics can easily start at $180 US for 100 ml bottles (2012 prices.)
Modena-made “tradizionale” Balsamic Vinegar, referred to in the trade as “ABTM – Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena”, is sold in bottles that resemble a lab beaker; the Reggio Emilia-made “tradizionale” Balsamic Vinegar, referred to in the trade as “ABTRE – Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Reggio Emilia”, is sold in bottles that resemble an upside down tulip.
As of 2010, there are about 75,000 bottles a year of Tradizionale being made: 50,000 of those by 100 producers in Modena, and 25,000 of those by about 60 producers in Reggio Emilia. Around 30,000 bottles of that overall total are “extra vecchio” Tradizionale, meaning they are aged 25 years or more.
One hundred litres (about 26 US gallons) of grape juice are needed to produce 6 litres (1.6 gallons) of the Tradizionale Balsamic Vinegar.
It is made primarily from the juice of white Trebbiano grapes. Other grapes used can be Ancellotta, Berzemino, Lambrusco, Occhio di Gatto, Sauvignon and Sgavetta. For Modena balsamic, the grapes must have been grown in Modena, and for Reggio Emilia, grown in Reggio Emilia. The grapes are harvested very late in the year — late September, or early October — when the grapes will have started to shrivel up a bit like raisins, so that their sugars and flavours will have concentrated.
The grapes are crushed to extract the juice, which is referred to as the must (mosto.) This juice is then slowly simmered in open vats for a day or two at a temperature between 175 – 200 F (80 to 93 C), during which it caramelizes a bit and turns brown. At this point, it’s referred to as Mosto d’uva cotto (“cooked grape must.”) The volume of juice will have been reduced anywhere from one-third to one-half, depending on the maker.
To the juice is then added some older Balsamic Vinegar which has live aceto-bacteria in it, which will then colonize the juice and begin converting it to acetic acid. It’s then put in wooden barrels and allowed to age for several months.
Balsam is a “fragrant resin” that comes out of wood. The balsams that flavour Balsamic Vinegar come into it naturally as it ages in different kinds of wooden barrels. The approved woods that can be used for the barrels are ash, juniper, mulberry, chestnut, acacia, cherry and oak. Each year the vinegar is transferred to a barrel of a different wood, so that it can take on the different flavours.
The barrels are kept in rows of 5 to 12 in the attics of buildings, or in warehouses, where the vinegar in them will experience both summer heat and winter cold. A row of barrels is called a “batteria.” The barrels are arranged in descending sizes, starting at about 100 gallons and ending at about 10 gallons. There is a small window in the top of each barrel to allow evaporation. Each window is covered by a cloth doily to keep dust out. Each year, about 10% of contents of the barrels will evaporate. Called the “angels’ share” by makers, it is this evaporation which concentrates the flavour. Generally, the larger barrels are made of more porous woods to help promote evaporation, while the smaller barrels at the end of the row will be made of harder woods such as oak.
Each winter, about 25% of the vinegar from the smallest barrel is removed and bottled. The barrel is then topped back up by vinegar from the next biggest barrel, which is then in turn topped up from the next biggest barrel to it, and so on, with newly-made vinegar (the “new” stuff that was aging in separate wooden barrels) being used to top up the largest barrel at the start of the row.
It takes anywhere from 12 to 25 years to make (12 years minimum for a Tradizionale “affinato” bottle, 25 years for Tradizionale “extra vecchio.”) Some balsamics are even aged 50 years.
Though some makers may promote the exact age of their vinegar in their marketing material (12 years, 18 years, etc), it’s actually impossible to know the exact age of what came out of the smallest barrel because a portion of younger wine is moved down the line each year. For this reason, sellers of even Tradizionale grade cannot put a vintage date or exact age on their labels by law.
In Modena, bottles of the 12 year one have a white top on them; the 25 year one has a gold top. In Reggio Emila, there are three colours of tops used: the 12 year ones have a crimson top, the 25 year ones have a gold top, and ones aged somewhere in the middle, 12 to 25, referred to as “vecchio”, have a silver top.
Certification of the bottled vinegars is done by yet another, independent consortium called the “Consorzio Produzione Certificata ABM” (Consortium for the Certified Production of Modena Aromatic Vinegar.) They employ people trained by the Union of Balsamic Tasters (“Unione Assaggiatori Balsamico”.)
Other Balsamic Vinegars
Greece also makes a balsamic vinegar, called “balsamico” or “balsamon.” In fact, in 2009 they opposed the PGI being awarded to Modena “Aceto Balsamico” because Greece maintained that “aceto balsamico”, “balsamic”, etc were generic terms. (In the end, the protected term became not “aceto balsamico”, but “Aceto Balsamico di Modena.”)
And, there are dirt-cheap knock-off Balsamic Vinegars made in America, Canada and the UK. These knock-offs may have a bit of Balsamic Vinegar in them, to which lots of wine vinegar is added. Or, they may be made with wine vinegar to which grape must has been added. (Note that true Balsamic does not start from wine, but from juice.) Then brown sugar or caramel may be added to both sweeten the vinegar and give it the dark colour. There are also “white” balsamics made (see separate entry on White Balsamic Vinegar.) These products are allowed by domestic laws to label themselves as “Balsamic Vinegar”, but they are not allowed to say “of Modena” or of “Reggio Emilia.”
A Tradizonale grade Balsamic Vinegar shouldn’t be used in cooking a dish, or even in a dressing (it would be too sweet for most salad dressings, anyway.) It is wasteful of these higher grades to use them like that; a lower grade one will do the job fine. Instead, a Tradizonale should be used as a table condiment on food such as risotto or strawberries. Use only a very small amount, almost as though you were applying it with an eye-dropper. Some foodies actually have do eye droppers or spray atomizers that they use.
Aceto Balsamico di Modena, as opposed to the two Tradizionales, has a milder flavour, which sometimes can actually be advantageous in some dishes. Unlike Tradizonale, this is the one to use as an ingredient in things.
Whatever grade of Balsamic Vinegar you are using in cooking, add it at the end so that the flavour doesn’t get cooked out.
Can be used to deglaze a meat pan.
Another kind of vinegar, such as red wine vinegar mixed with a bit of honey or sugar, or fruit or sherry vinegar, if you have any to hand. In cooking and glazing, red vermouth. Or, try Black Rice Vinegar.
Note that, unlike red wine and most other vinegars, Balsamic Vinegar attracts Weight Watcher points owing to the carbs in it. How many exactly will depend on the brand.
Balsamic Vinegar will store in a sealed container indefinitely. No refrigeration is required, but the recommended temperature range is between 4 – 30°C. After long storage with no use, it is normal for some sedimentation to appear: just shake the bottle before use.
A version of balsamic labelled
as a condiment
© Denzil Green
Balsamic Vinegar was known first to the Greeks, and they still make Balsamic Vinegar, but the Italians now claim it as their own.
A vinegar called “laudatum acetum” made in Canossa, Reggio Emilia, was given in 1046, in a silver bottle, by the Marquis Bonifacio to Henry III (1017 – 1056), the Holy Roman Emperor at the time. Some presume that this was Balsamic Vinegar, but this is just speculation. Though no one would doubt that to qualify as a gift, it would have to be a special vinegar, there is no way to know exactly what type of vinegar it was.
Up to the Middle Ages, the sugar-rich Trebbiano grape was used primarily for wine. By about the 1200s, it seems to have been generally decided that what was being made was more a vinegar than a wine, owing to the high acidity in these grapes, and efforts were focussed in that direction. References to “balsamic” earlier than that in Italy may be more to a wine than a vinegar.
It seems certain that what we know as Balsamic Vinegar today was being produced for sure by the late 1700s, because a bottle of it from then was found, and opened: “On the 28th of June 1995, the consortium opened a bottle of “Balsamico brusco”, dated 1785. It was “declared by Vincenzo Ferrari Amorotti to be in a perfect state of conservation and intensely aromatic.” 
Marcella Hazan, the American food writer, says that Balsamic Vinegar really wasn’t marketed commercially until the 1970s:
“I have forgotten the exact year that I became acquainted with balsamic vinegar, but it happened in the early 1970s on a vist to Bologna, when the Fini food company of Modena announced its tradition-breaking intention to bottle it and release it commercially. Like all land-owning families in Modena, the Finis had been making balsamic vinegar for their own use for generations, and through marriage, inheritance, and acquisition, they had amassed a substantial stock of it… George Fini… gave me a few samples of the vinegar and a prototype of the eight-sided bottle they were going to put it into…. Craig Claiborne came over for one of our periodic lunches during which we chatted about our world, and he became the first person in America to taste it. ‘This will be a sensation,’ he said.” — Hazan, Marcella. Amarcord: Marcella Remembers. New York: Gotham Books. 2008. Page 210-211.
This conflicts, though, with other evidence that the Monari Federzoni brand was on the market way before that. In 1912, Mrs. Elena Monari Federzoni, in Modena, Italy, applied for a license to sell her Balsamic Vinegar, which she made in the loft above her grocery store, and sold there.
“The Federzonis were the first to make balsamic vinegar commercially, beginning in 1912…” — Zwack, Anne Marshall. Italy’s Aged Balsamic Vinegar. New York Times. 3 January 1988.
It may be that by “tradition-breaking” Hazan meant for the Fini family, rather than for the Balsamic Vinegar industry as a whole.
The first mention that CooksInfo.com has found of it in the American press is in 1980:
“Pat Brown, editor of CUISINE, the magazine of fine food and creative living, has these gift suggestions: Oils and vinegars. Fine oils and vinegars make excellent gifts. Although they cost more than other oils and vinegars, as gifts they are easily affordable. A selection of three oils and three vinegars makes a super gift. Try giving first-pressed virgin olive oil. hazelnut oil and walnut oil. All are delicious in salad dressings, and the first-pressed virgin olive oil may also be used for cooking. It’s this kind of olive oil that makes the real taste difference in many Italian and Mediterranean dishes such as ratatouille, pesto, and zuppa di pesce. For vinegars, try raspberry vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and sherry vinegar. They’re a logical and delicious complement to the oils for mixing and matching. Your gift of oils and vinegars could be packed in a basket or tote for added eye appeal.” — “Food fanciers get Christmas treats.” Cedar Rapids Gazette. Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 27 November 1980. Page 36. Column 3.
The “Consortium of the Producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” was created in 1979, championed by Ferdinando Cavalli.
On 4 April 1986, the Tradizionale version received Italian DOC status. This also marked the point when the two groups of producers, Modena and Reggio Emila, stopped fighting and agreed to work together. They united, and both received the DOC designation. Both would receive all future designations together.
In 1987, the Modena consortium bottled 4,000 100ml bottles of their Tradizionale.
In 1993, the Tradizionale version received protected recognition under the name of “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena.”
In 1995, the Modena consortium bottled 10,000 100ml bottles of their Tradizionale.
On 17 April 2000, the Tradizionale version received European PDO status.
In 2003, owing to several disagreements, several producers left the Consortium of the Producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, and founded the second one, called “Consortium to Safeguard the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.”
In 2009, the “non-traditional” Balsamic Vinegar version received European PGI designation.
In 2010, the combined Modena and Reggio Emilia consortia produced 75,000 bottles of their Tradizionale.
On Tuesday, 29 May 2012, Modena producers of Balsamic Vinegar were affected by an earthquake which struck the area. Some warehouses were completely flattened and others badly damaged. Producers estimated that they lost over 100,000 litres at various stages of production.
Literature & Lore
There is evidence, backed up by Craig Claiborne that Marcella Hazan was responsible for bringing the vinegar to the attention of Americans:
“Q. I have developed quite a liking for balsamic vinegar and am curious to know how it is made.
A. Balsamic vinegar was all but unknown in this country until it was introduced several years ago in the writings of the Italian food authority Marcella Hazan. In her book “More Classic Italian Cooking” (Alfred A. Knopf, 1978), she wrote: “A very special vinegar, aceto balsamico di Modena, is made from the boiled-down must of white Trebbiano grapes, and aged in a series of barrels of different woods, of gradually diminishing size. By law it must be at least 10 years old, but homemade aceto balsamico is often aged 50 years or more. It is a mellow, sweet-and-sour liquor of a vinegar, with a heady fragrance. A minute quantity added to regular vinegar is sufficient in a salad.” — Claiborne, Craig. “Well, first you catch a possum…” In: Orange County Register. Santa Ana, California. 10 August 1983. Page 106.
Balsamon in Greek, means “reliever” or medicine. Balsamic Vinegar was often seen as a restorative or as a cure for some ills.
 Zwack, Anne Marshall. Italy’s Aged Balsamic Vinegar. New York Times. 3 January 1988.
 Nora, Luciana. “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar from Modena a Carpi tradition as well.” Carpi Town Council Ethnographic Centre. March 2008.
Capalbo, Carla. The Vinegar Complex. Departures Magazine. September 2002.
COMMISSION REGULATION (EC) No 583/2009. Entering a name in the register of protected designations of origin and protected geographical indications [Aceto Balsamico di Modena (PGI)]. L 175 / 7. 4 July 2009.
Earthquake hits Italy’s balsamic vinegar producers. France 24 International News. Retrieved July 2012 from http://www.france24.com/en/20120529-earthquake-hits-italys-balsamic-vinegar-producers