Most people are familiar with balsamic vinegar from seeing it in their supermarket’s condiment aisle. Which is exactly where I used to buy it. I mean, balsamic vinegar is balsamic vinegar. No need to spend top dollar, right? This was about three years ago. Now, I have at least two different balsamic vinegars at home: an affordable supermarket version (for cooking) and a fancier aged version (for refining). But even when I buy the supermarket version now, I am much pickier than I used to be. What happened? I moved to Modena, Italy – the home of real balsamic vinegar.
I used to think balsamic vinegar was basically all the same. My first acetaia (vinegar maker) visit and tasting the so-called black gold right at the source changed my mind. Since that first visit, I have visited quite a few more vinegar makers and keep learning more and more about balsamic vinegar: how balsamic vinegar is made, how to recognize the good stuff, how to use it in the kitchen, balsamic vinegar’s health benefits, and so much more. Let’s start with the basics.
What is Balsamic Vinegar? Is it All the Same?
Balsamic vinegar is basically the fancy cousin of red and white wine vinegar. It’s acidy like them, but that’s really where the similarities stop. It is made of grapes, but the grapes are turned into grape must and never allowed to ferment into wine. Instead, the grape must is mixed with some really old balsamic vinegar. Then it is aged in a series of ever smaller wooden wine barrels until it is ready to be sold.
The kind of grapes, additional ingredients, production location and procedure, as well as the amount of time and kind of barrels the vinegar ages in all determine the resulting type of balsamic vinegar. So, no, balsamic vinegar is not all the same. There are five basic types of balsamic vinegar. And these balsamic vinegar types can be very, very different from each other. All of the different types of balsamic vinegar have grapes as their basic ingredient. Some start with raw grapes and nothing else. Others start with partially fermented, cooked, or concentrated grapes. Some have a very regulated and specific production process. Others are completely unregulated. As a result, some come with quality labels from the European Union. Others don’t have any specific labels and use terms rather freely. Some are produced only in Modena or Reggio Emilia, Italy. Others can be produced anywhere in the world. Some vinegars are really, really old. Others are only 60 days “young”. And some shouldn’t even be allowed to be sold as balsamic vinegar. But more about that later. The following infographic shows the five different types of balsamic vinegar and what distinguishes them from one another. For those of you who want to know all the details, keep reading below the infographic. Or follow this link: find out how to easily recognize the real balsamic vinegar.
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Below you can see a selection of a few balsamic vinegars that are either DOP or IGP. I have tasted all of them and they are very good. As you can see, the prices vary drastically from the 25-old tradizionale DOP on the left to the Argento IGP on the right.
The Five Different Types of Balsamic Vinegar
There are five basic types of balsamic vinegar:
- Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena = Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
- Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia = Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia
- Aceto Balsamico di Modena = Balsamic Vinegar of Modena
- Condimento Aceto Balsamico = Balsamic Vinegar Dressing
- Aceto Balsamico = Balsamic Vinegar
Once you dive into the world of balsamic vinegar, you quickly realize that it’s much more complicated than you thought. The first three types are highly regulated. In fact, there is at least one protective consortium that is tasked with safeguarding the production and good name for each of these balsamic vinegars. These are the three biggest ones:
- Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena = The “Consortium for the Protection of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena”
- Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia = The “Consortium for the Protection of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia”
- Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico di Modena = The “Consortium for the Protection of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena”
The fourth and fifth balsamic vinegar types are not regulated at all. In fact, there are a number of people who say that using the word “balsamic” to describe a product that is not one of the first three types should be illegal. And it’s true, in 2015 a German court ruled that a German company wasn’t allowed to use the term “balsamic” to describe their products. However, many companies worldwide still freely use the term “balsamic” without any limitation. So, make sure you pay attention when purchasing balsamic vinegar in the supermarket or online. There are many versions out there that are not actually balsamic vinegar. Read this article of you want to know exactly what to watch out for: Choose the Best Balsamic Vinegar.
Balsamic Vinegar Ingredients
The first two types of balsamic vinegar, the traditional balsamic vinegar from Modena and Reggio Emilia, can only contain one ingredient: grapes. And even the grapes are restricted to those varieties that typically occur in the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia, respectively. These include for example Lambrusco, Ancellota, Trebbiano, Sauvignon, Sgavetta, Berzemino, and Occhio di Gatta. That’s it. The traditional products are not allowed to contain anything else – other than previously aged balsamic vinegar of course.
The simpler Aceto Balsamico di Modena (Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) can basically contain the same grapes. However, they can be partially fermented, cooked, or concentrated at the beginning of the production process. With the traditional product only fresh grapes are used to start the process. The simpler Aceto Balsamico di Modena (Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) also contains the already aged balsamic vinegar of course. What differentiates it from the traditional balsamic vinegar in terms of ingredients is the addition of 10% wine vinegar. And the vinegar producer is allowed to add up to 2% of caramel for coloring.
The Condimento (Dressing) and Balsamic Vinegar can contain everything the Aceto Balsamico di Modena (Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) contains and more. There are no restriction of type of grape or amount of wine vinegar or caramel that can be used. Additionally, many vinegar producers add sugar or other sweeteners, thickeners (e.g., guar gum, corn flour), aromas, and preservatives. Not all producers choose to add all of these ingredients, but they are basically free to use whatever they choose.
Balsamic Vinegar Production
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar. The first two types of balsamic vinegar, the Tradizionale from Modena and Reggio Emilia, can only be produced in the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia, respectively. These two types of balsamic vinegar have the most regulated production process of all of the balsamic vinegar types. The first step in the production process is the creation of grape must by pressing whole fresh grapes. The resulting grape must includes the juice, skin, seeds, and stems of the grapes. This grape must is then cooked down to a concentration of 30 – 50% following specific guidelines (e.g., cooking of the grapes over an open flame at regular air pressure). The aging period lasts for at least 12 years for the youngest traditional balsamic vinegar. This happens in a series of wooden barrels, a so-called batteria. This series of wooden barrels consists of barrels that are made of specific types of wood (mostly oak, chestnut, mulberry, cherry and juniper). The biggest one is one type of wood, the second-biggest is another type of wood, the third-biggest yet another type of wood and so on. Each type of wood imparts the balsamic vinegar with different notes. The freshly cooked must is only ever added to the biggest of these barrels. As the liquid evaporates in the Modenese summer heat, the balsamic vinegar gets denser and sweeter. Over the cold winter the balsamic vinegar is allowed to rest in the old attics of the vinegar producers. Each spring the vinegar maker can remove a part of the balsamic vinegar from the smallest barrel to be sold as the finished product. To the remaining balsamic vinegar, he will add a part of the liquid from the second-smallest barrel. This in turn gets refilled with liquid from the third-smallest barrel and so on. The largest barrel gets topped off with cooked grape must. Before being bottled and sold, the vinegar producer will have its product tested to make sure it meets certain standards and characteristics. For example, the minimum acidity for a Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is 4.5% and its density cannot be below 1.240 grams per milliliter at 20° Celsius. The Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia instead has is minimum acidity of 5% and its density cannot be below 1.200 grams per milliliter at 20° Celsius.
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. The Aceto Balsamico di Modena can be produced in the provinces of Modena or Reggio Emilia. The production process of this type of balsamic vinegar is somewhat regulated, but not nearly as much as that of the traditional balsamic vinegars. The production process starts with the combination of the ingredients. As described above, possible ingredients include grapes, balsamic vinegar, wine vinegar, and caramel for coloring. The minimum aging period for the youngest type of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is 60 days and has to take place in wooden containers. To be called Invecchiato (Aged), the Balsamic Vinegar of Modena has to be aged an additional three years in wooden containers. The woods used to make these containers are for example oak, chestnut, mulberry and juniper. However, unlike for the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena or Reggio Emilia, the simpler Balsamic Vinegar of Modena does not have to go through a whole series of barrels made of different types of wood each. Some producers choose to use different woods, but it is not a requirement. Before being bottled and sold, the vinegar producer will have its product tested to make sure it meets certain standards and characteristics. For example, the minimum acidity for an Aged Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is 6% and its density cannot be below 1.060 grams per milliliter at 20° Celsius.
Balsamic Vinegar Dressing & Balsamic Vinegar. The Condimento Aceto Balsamico and Aceto Balsamico can be produced anywhere in the world. The production is completely unregulated. As a result, some manufacturers use the same production processes used by traditional balsamic vinegar makers to produce a very high-quality product. Others use very different production processes that can result in lower-quality products. Follow the Protection Consortium for news about how the term “balsamic” can be currently used and their initiatives to protect the term further.
EU Quality Logos for Balsamic Vinegar
Only the first three, regulated types of balsamic vinegar come with a quality label of sorts:
- The two balsamic vinegar types with Tradizionale (traditional) in the name come with the European Union seal “Protected Designation of Origin”, PDO for short. Often you also see the Italian equivalent listed: Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP). They are often referred to as Aceto Balsamico DOP (Balsamic Vinegar DOP).
- The third type of balsamic vinegar, Aceto Balsamico di Modena (Balsamic Vinegar of Modena), comes with the less restrictive seal “Protected Geographical Indication”, PGI for short. You also see the Italian equivalent listed fairly frequently: Indicazione Geografica Protetta (IGP). This type of balsamic vinegar is often referred to as Aceto Balsamico PGI (Balsamic Vinegar PGI).
If one of these labels is displayed on the bottle, you know you are dealing with a genuine, authentic balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy. It indicates that the producer used the appropriate ingredients as well as production process and location. If no label like this is displayed, you know you are dealing with either a Condimento (Dressing) or other unregulated balsamic vinegar.
For both the DOP and IGP products, the Italian Ministry for Agriculture has the most recent documents that summarize the accepted production process, ingredients, and control on their website: Piani di controllo dei prodotti DOP e IGP.
Some Condimento (Dressing) producers use either a DOP or IGP product as one of the ingredients in their products. If they do so, they indicate this on the final product. This does not mean the producer used any other specific or limited ingredients or followed any kind of production guidelines. It just means that some DOP or IGP balsamic vinegar is a part of the final product.
Other Important Identifiers for Traditional Balsamic Vinegar
The two types of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, one from Modena and the other from Reggio Emilia, can also be recognized by their unique bottles. Giorgetto Giugiaro, Italy’s famous car designer, created the design for the bottle in which the Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) is sold. By law, this type of vinegar cannot be sold in any other bottle. The Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia) also has a bottle that was designed specifically for it. It resembles an inverted tulip.
The other three types of balsamic vinegar can be sold in any kind of bottle the producer chooses for it.
Varieties within the Five Different Balsamic Vinegar Types
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. The Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena comes in two different varieties:
- Affinato (Refined). Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena has to be aged for a minimum of 12 years before it can be sold as Affinato (Refined). It does not have a designated cap color, but the colors most often used by vinegar producers are red or cream.
- Extravecchio (Extra-old). Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena has to be aged for a minimum of 25 years before it can be sold as Extravecchio (Extra-old). The cap color gold is reserved for this variety of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia. The Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia comes in three different varieties:
- Aragosta (Red) Label. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia has to be aged for a minimum of 12 years before it can be sold as Aragosta (Red) Label. It can be distinguished from other varieties by its bright red label.
- Argento (Silver) Label. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia has to be aged for a minimum of 18 years before it can be sold as Argento (Silver) Label. It can be distinguished from other varieties by its silver label.
- Oro (Gold) Label. Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia has to be aged for a minimum of 25 years before it can be sold as Oro (Gold) Label. It can be distinguished from other varieties by its golden label.
Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. The Aceto Balsamico di Modena comes in two different varieties:
- Regular – no specific term used. Regular Balsamic Vinegar of Modena has to be aged for a minimum of 60 days before it can be sold as such.
- Invecchiato (Aged). Balsamic Vinegar of Modena has to be aged for an additional three years before it can be sold as Invecchiato (Aged).
Balsamic Vinegar Dressing & Balsamic Vinegar. There are three broad groups within the Condimento (Dressing) type: (1) Condimento Balsamico, (2) Salsa Balsamica, (3) Salsa di Mosto Cotto. The term “balsamic vinegar” is often used for cheap industrial imitations, but can as well be used for high-grade balsamic vinegars from regions other than Modena or Reggio Emilia or even outside of Italy. The term “balsamic” is often used for products that contain balsamic vinegar or imitate balsamic vinegar. Balsamic glazes for example have recently become very popular. They imitate the thickness and sweetness of a traditional balsamic without having undergone the long, natural aging process. There are also many flavored glazes. Popular flavors are for example raspberry, fig, and truffle. Along with flavored glazes, there are also flavored condiments with similar aromas as the glazes, but a different, less thick, consistency. Another novelty are balsamic pearls which are basically balsamic vinegar, but served in pearl-form. Then, there is white balsamic vinegar which is cooked slower, so there is no caramelization and thus the distinctive darker color is missing. Another product often sold by balsamic vinegar producers is called Saba which is basically reduced grape juice that has not been aged. As you can see, the varieties within these two types are basically endless.
Find Out More
Before you head out to buy some balsamic vinegar for your next culinary adventure, read my guide about the five factors that let you identify the right balsamic vinegar for you. And sign up for my monthly newsletter. I have some great interviews with balsamic vinegar makers and other experts coming up in 2018.