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What is Balsamic Vinegar of Modena?

What is Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP?

Traditional Balsamic of Vinegar of Modena DOP is produced by taking the juices (must) from the pressed grapes and cooking it for hours over direct fire until a brown, syrupy liquid with a pleasant grape smell is obtained (cooked must). This cooked must is then aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 years following the Solera System. The Solera system, also known as “topping up”, is a blending system in which each year the newest cooked must is blended with the one from the previous year already contained in the barrel.  These barrels are made of different types of wood, such as cherry, chestnut, oak, mulberry, and ash and they each hold different capacities (the first barrel holds about 40 gallons and the last one holds about 2 gallons). Normally there are sets of 5,7 or 9 barrels. This set is called “batteria”.

It is very important to understand that it is constantly a blend of new harvests with the previous one which explains why the legislator in Italy forbids any aging claims on labels for this item.  The legislator also strictly forbids any aging claims due to the fact that there is only an organoleptic test performed to the product.  In fact, the only way to determine a precise age is with a Carbon 13 test.

The barrels used for ageing the vinegar are stored in attics in which the temperature and different seasons determine the speed of fermentation.  In the cold winter months the process of fermentation is slow and with the heat and humidity of the summer months the fermentation process speeds up and causes a natural concentration of the grapes by evaporation.  Each barrel actually absorbs some of its content, allowing for the aroma of each particular wood.   The end result is a very sweet, thick, rich and complex vinegar.

After a minimum of 12 years, the producer can submit the product to a panel of master tasters within the Consortium of Producers of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (CPABTM).   This panel of master tasters perform an organoleptical evaluation on the color, viscosity, taste, flavor and aroma. If the product scores more than 250 points, the producer can bring the product to the Consortium, who then bottles the vinegar in a unique 100 ml. bottle (designed by a famous designer: Giugiaro). Having the Consortium bottle the product helps in controlling and guaranteeing the quality.
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI is produced in 2 distinctive qualities, Burgundy Seal (one that is aged for a minimum of 12 years) and Gold Seal (one that is aged for a minimum of 25 years). Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP is a very expensive vinegar; it easy retails for $ 100 or more for 100ml (3oz). The Traditional product made in “Reggio Emilia” follows the same procedures but is certified under the Consortium for Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia and is produced in 3 qualities: Red Label (one that is aged for a minimum of 12 years) , Silver Label (one that is aged for a minimum of 25 years), and Gold Label (one that is aged for over 25 years).  Also, in this case, a specific age/year cannot be claimed.
The certification “DOP” – Denomination of Protected Origin,  is given by the European Union and  identifies the name of a product whose production, processing, and preparation must take place in a specific geographical area and characterized by a recognized know-how.

What is Balsamic Vinegar of Modena P.G.I.?

This product is obtained by the blending and consequent fermentation of must (either cooked or concentrated) with wine vinegar.  The addition of less than 2% of caramel color is also comprised by the law which is a natural product and is used to uniform and keep a consistent color.
The concentrated grape must is a vacuum process with low temperature that creates a low flavor profile with a sweet and fruity taste at a lower cost.  The cooked grape must is under direct fire, burning sugars and creating a high flavor profile, full body at a higher cost (same type as used for Traditional). Even though many claim not to, it is important to understand that ALL producers use caramel coloring.  It is simple to understand this due to the fact that the color of the products is always the same year after year, despite the obvious difference in characteristics from one harvest to the next.

The concentrated or cooked must or a blend of the 2 is mixed with wine vinegar that creates a mass which is then fermented and aged.  It is the quality of the must along with the wine vinegar in this primary blend that is important to the quality of the final product.  The quality and quantity of these ingredients can be measured by a simple lab analysis that measures the density, dried extracts, and dried extracts without sugars.
The quality of the final product is more the result of the blend of ingredients rather than the mere ageing of them.  Because of this blending and due to the different quality levels of each individual harvest, exact ageing claims cannot be proven and the Italian government forbids ageing from appearing on labels.

Basically, the goal for a Balsamic Vinegar of Modena producer is to offer their clients a steady and consistent quality (taste, aroma, and flavor profile). Since each grape harvest is different, the vinegar maker needs to blend and age different qualities for different amounts of time in order to obtain this consistency of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI.
The quality of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI is determined by 3 main factors: Quality of Ingredients, Quantity of Ingredients, and Ageing.  Within the same category, there may be substantial differences in quality and the degree of concentration which is a very important factor in determining the quality of the final product.

The certification “P.G.I.” means “Protected Geographic Indication” and basically is a guarantee from the European Union which identifies the link with the territory whose distinctive character is present in at least one of the stages of production, processing, or preparation of the product.
Any product which is not made in the legal area of Modena, Italy under the specific production regulations can not receive the P.G.I certification and therefore can not use the word “Balsamic” within it’s product description.

All other products which are similar in sour/sweet characteristics and manufactured with similar ingredients and procedures to a Balsamic Vinegar, can be referred to as a condiment, vinaigrette, or dressing but can not incorporate the word “Balsamic” in the name. In some cases when the product is made with actual Balsamic Vinegar of Modena P.G.I. it must be labeled in specific accordance to European law.
One example is White Condiment. Several years ago, chefs began searching for a product with the same characteristics of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, but without the same dark color in order to not discolor the presentation of certain salads or prepared dishes.
White  Condiment was created and, however similar to balsamic vinegar of Modena, it still has some different characteristics.  For example, the taste of the product is fruitier and less bodied than the “regular” balsamic vinegar of Modena and the flavor is sharper and less woody.
This is a very grey area, as condiments can be made very well and very similar to the real thing that are quite good, however it is important to always keep a watchful eye when buying condiments, as some out there may not be produced with good known ingredients and procedures as real Balsamic Vinegars are (for example adding sugars, thickening agents, access coloring) and can be miss-presented as a quality produced product.