Together with extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar is one of the most popular gourmet products coming from Italy. As it often happens with iconic Italian foods and food-related products, many are its fraudulent imitations that may disorient the consumer. Let’s put it simply: the shorter the label, the better the product.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is a reduction of naturally fermented grape must coming only from Lambrusco, Sangiovese, Trebbiano, Albana, Ancellotta, Fortana and Montuni vines. The must is cooked and then aged in barrels or casks made from selected wood types such as oak, chestnut, mulberry and juniper. The minimum amount of grape must is 20% of the total quantity of product to be processed; a 10% of wine vinegar – which helps the fermentation process – and a 2% of caramel – for colour stability – are then added. Everything else, like chemical additives, artificial colouring and sulphites, are to be found only in low-quality, industrial products.
Despite dating back to ancient Roman times, the art of vinegar production started becoming popular towards the end of the 13th century at the Este Court, in Modena. The adjective ‘balsamic’ made its first appearance in 1747, in the registers of the cellars of the Dukes of Este: it was recorded as ‘half balsamic’ and ‘refined balsamic’, which correspond respectively to the current Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. The first one (Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP) is now produced only with must and wine vinegar coming from the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia; Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (Aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena), instead, is a PDO (in Italian DOP), a recognition awarded to products of excellence that express a strong connection with their territories of origin. The production of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena takes a long time as the must coming from Trebbiano or Lambrusco grapes (again, coming only from Modena and Reggio Emilia provinces) is aged in wooden barrels for 12 to 18 years. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is the highest-quality balsamic vinegar available and it is, therefore, the most expensive. Products simply labelled as ‘Balsamic Vinegar’ are mass produced vinegars – aged for a minimum amount of time, if at all – and therefore they carry the cheapest price tag.
In order to protect this Italian excellence, many are the laws and strict regulations promoted by the Consorzio di Tutela dell’IGP Aceto Balsamico di Modena – the association of balsamic vinegar producers founded in 1993 – which have been approved both on a national and European level.
Its success, both in Italian households and in international restaurants worldwide, is due to its delicate balance of sweet and sour which makes it a rather versatile ingredient: young and light-bodied Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is best used in cooked dishes, whilst fuller-bodied, longer-aged one is perfect as a sauce to enhance the flavour of fruit, vegetable salads or to add a touch of contemporary class to desserts and cocktails. Besides, it contains no fat and very little natural sugar thus making it a healthy choice.