Vinegar has been making a lot of noise over the past couple of years for a number of reasons, ranging from the apparent novelty of drinking vinegar to its health benefits, which include weight management, blood sugar control and gut health. If you even say “apple” near Siri or Alexa, it seems, you’re inundated with apple cider vinegar products.
But if you’re in the market for balsamic vinegar, you should probably pay close attention to the labels, seals, bottle shapes and even the wax-and-cork closures the next time you’re at the grocery store. Not all balsamics are created equal. Many aren’t even balsamics. The real stuff stems only from native-grown grapes in the regions where it originated: the Modena and Reggio Emilia provinces of Emilia Romagna, Italy.
The first clue, then, is to find out the appellation of origin. If you’re looking at a bottle of, say, fig balsamic vinegar made in Napa Valley, it’s probably still some great-tasting vinegar. But the addition of fruit other than grapes and its New World province puts it in a different category. It’s a condimento vinegar, not a true balsamic vinegar. This classification includes white balsamic and balsamic truffle vinegars as well as balsamic glazes.
Knowing that balsamic vinegar has a specific terroir, like Champagne, also highlights why it’s so problematic that “balsamic vinegar” is a phrase that anyone is free to use. Any age or class of balsamic vinegar from Modena should not contain ingredients aside from grape must (or, in some cases, wine vinegar) from native grapes. That makes one thing absolutely imperative: Read the label. If you see additives such as brown sugar, thickeners with chemical-sounding names ― or worse, caramel coloring, which might even be carcinogenic ― put it back on the shelf. And if water appears in the list, well, you’ll get what you pay for.
Instead, rely on the seals, such as the one provided by The Consortium for the Protection of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena in Italy, which monitors the quality and tradition of its particular Balsamic Vinegar of Modena-making practices. It was formed in 1993 with about 10 producers, but now has 50. Only those belonging to the Consortium and willing to abide by the bylaws are allowed to slap those European Union-approved seals on the products.
The history of balsamic vinegar of Modena
Northern Italians have known for at least 1,000 years how beneficial, delicious and special balsamic vinegar is for the gastronomic biome.
In fact, true balsamic vinegar — that intense, dark brown, glossy, sweet-sour stuff you dip your focaccia in at Italian restaurants — can be traced back to the 1st century B.C. through a literary reference made by Virgillus. Ancient Romans cooked grape must, the base of balsamic vinegar, as a food preservation tactic. Julius Caesar was the first to label it medicinal, believing it disinfected the gastrointestinal tracts of his troops. Given his successes, perhaps he was correct.
In 2009, the European Union granted Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (BVM) the coveted Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). That means the product is subject to approved practices and bylaws — including chemical and sensory analyses on the final results — and can be rejected if it doesn’t meet quality control.
BVM PGI joins two other already-protected balsamic vinegars from the same regions: Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (TBV) of Modena PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and Traditional Balsamic Vinegar (TBV) of Reggio Emilia PDO.
The differences between TBV PDO and BVM PGI designations are slight-sounding but significant. With TBV PDO products, all stages of processing or production must happen in the agricultural area of origin. With BVM PGI products, it needs to originate in and be attributable to the country, but only one stage of production or processing needs to occur in the region.
With all three groups of protected balsamic vinegars, the process begins with grape must procured from seven approved local-only varieties: lambrusco, sangiovese, trebbiano, albana, ancellotta, fortana and montuni. But here’s how else they differ:
Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)
TBV PDOs are made in acetaias, which are usually family-owned, going back generations for centuries. There, the grapes (usually lambrusco and trebbiano) are pressed and the must — only the must — is cooked over an open flame until it’s reduced by half. It’s then aged for a minimum of 12 years and up to 75-plus years in a series of ever-smaller barrels of different woods where acetic oxidation, sugar fermentation and controlled evaporation occurs.
The cask system, or batteria, is similar to the solera system in Spain, where a tiny amount of the oldest liquid — in this case, the micro-organisms of the “mother” — are introduced at the beginning and filtered into the eventual final product.
That finished vinegar, depending on its age, is sent to either the Consortium for the Protection of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena or the Consortium of Ancient Acetaie Producers for evaluation and approval. The product is then granted its seal and signature bottling.
These strict practices result in some very pricey bottles. A bottle of 12-year TBV PDO might set you back $40 to $50 for 8 ounces, but one that has aged 75-plus years can cost over $1,000 for 3.5 ounces.
Sometimes you have to be lucky to even sample some of these vinegars. Nicole Brisson, executive chef-partner at Brezza and Bar Zazu at Resorts World Las Vegas, has toured Modena and visited acetaias, which are like wineries. She has tried balsamic vinegar as young as 12 months and as old as 75 years. Because of the age of some of the vinegars, “I was amazed that the people producing the vinegar might not even live to taste the finished product,” she said.
Bill Dorrler, corporate executive chef of Osteria Morini and Nicoletta Brands within the Altamarea Group, has visited Modena to view the process firsthand and agrees. “Can you imagine developing a product that takes 75 years to mature? Crazy!” Dorrler said.
But even if you love and can afford a bottle of something you’ve had the good fortune to try on site, you might not be able to find it again. Brisson recollects touring the Leonardi Estate.
“They were experimenting with aging in juniper casks and producing a very intriguing juniper-aged balsamic,” she said. “I purchased only a few bottles of this one-of-a-kind balsamic vinegar and it paired so perfectly with duck and lamb. Unfortunately, since that visit, the cask maker had retired, and this variety is likely extinct now.”
Protected Geographical Indication (PGI)
When it comes to BVM PGI, production differs. The grape must is fermented or concentrated as well as heated, and a minimum of 10% wine vinegar is added. The Consortium’s regulations state that this wine vinegar itself should be aged at least 10 years, and the grape must in the final combination should be a minimum of 20%.
After the mixture is acetified, it’s aged in sessile oak, chestnut, oak, mulberry and/or juniper a minimum of 60 days. It earns the “aged” classification after three years in the barrel.
While the TBV PDOs and BVM PGI share a history, a region and a name, purists say the BVM PGI is a lesser product. The Consortium disagrees, noting that BVM PGI is actually a different product altogether, using distinctive raw materials.
Advocates see PGIs as a boon. The TBV PDOs, which can cost up to several hundred dollars per ounce, are significant investments and they’re limited in quantities, with many of them attainable only in specialty stores or at the acetaias themselves.
In fact, the BVM PGI’s methods have allowed a greater volume of balsamic vinegar to be produced at a more reasonable price, which home cooks can both access and afford. Still, these too can get pricey, with higher concentrations of cooked grape must and longer aging periods commanding more coin. All told, BVM PGIs range from about $12 to $180 per liter.
However, for the average consumer, a decent exported 8-ounce bottle of BVM PGI is an easier bite to swallow than the average 12-year TBV PDO, which costs about three times as much.
How to tell if you have authentic BVM PGI or TBV PDO
Both the BVM PGIs and TBV PDOs have made it easy to identify counterfeit balsamic vinegar, as each consortium has bylaws for bottling, labeling and even the color of caps that must be followed. This results in some very distinctive looks, and is only one of the reasons chefs like Dorrler and Brisson like to hold onto them.
“It’s a conversation piece,” Dorrler said. “I love entertaining and having this product on the table, telling stories of how it’s made.” One of his favorite moments, he mentions, is watching his guests’ reactions the first time they experience the characteristic quality versus what they thought balsamic really was.
But most importantly, for those of us who just want a decent bottle of balsamic vinegar from a market, you can tell by the seal on the label. BVM PGI’s seal is yellow and blue. TBV PDOs’ seals depend on age, but are either red or cream for the 12-year designation and gold for 25 years and up. Any bottle that doesn’t have a seal doesn’t belong to one of the consortia, isn’t monitored and may have extra ingredients that shouldn’t belong.
How to use BVM PGI or TBV PDO in your cooking
Sticklers insist that authentic balsamic vinegar, whether the more available BVM PGI or the more expensive TBV PDO, never be cooked but only consumed raw, as a topping, dressing or accent. Both Brisson and Dorrler agree, especially when doling out the pricier, highly aged TBV PDO. But they also might throw some less expensive balsamic vinegars from Modena in a sauce like cacciatore or use them to lace roasted chicken or vegetables that are themselves hot, thus warming up a vinegar’s compounds.
“In my home collection, I have balsamics ranging from $15 a bottle to $95,” Brisson said. “The most expensive is a bottle of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP, and I’ve had it for at least five years. It’s over 35 years old now and comes with an eyedropper. It pairs perfectly when simply drizzled over aged Parmigiano Reggiano or Harry’s Berries summer strawberries.”
She continued, “My favorite application at home is simply grilling meats and vegetables and drizzling to finish. I like to toss roasted beets with it, too. It also can be paired perfectly in a dessert application with fresh figs and goat milk or cheese.”
Dorrler also uses TBV PDO to accent his fare, which he describes as “rustic and focused on fresh ingredients and big flavor.” For those wishing to follow in his kitchen clogs, he advises, “Younger ‘vintages,’ such as the 25-year, is perfect on crostinis, salads, wonderful with Parmigiana cheese, vegetables like asparagus. Bump up to 50 years and it is a match made in heaven for omelets and pasta dishes. For something truly spectacular, [try the] 75 years drizzled on a beautiful vanilla or fior di latte gelato!”
And in the end, Brisson loves not only what any authentic balsamic vinegar tastes like, but what it represents. “Out of all the Italian ingredients I love, aged balsamic from Modena screams slow food. The amount of patience, dedication and respect of tradition that goes into it is the exact reason I am such an advocate.”