If you’ve been following along you know that we had a pretty full dance card in Bologna. This day would be our longest yet but absolutely worth the effort. We woke up before the sun and made our way to the train station in order to make it to Modena to meet our hosts from the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Di Modena.
DOP, IGP and straight up imposter
Today we would get to the bottom of what makes up an authentic balsamic vinegar and try to answer some of our questions to understand the difference between DOP, IGP and straight up imposter.
Our journey would bring us just outside of Modena to two of the largest producers of both traditional balsamic vinegar (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP) and standard balsamico di Modena (Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP).
Balsamic Theme Park
Our first stop was a new section of a well-established production facility. A park created to educate the public about balsamic vinegar production through an interactive display depicting the history and production.
An ambitious project that has its sights set on creating a “balsamic theme park” of sorts. We were some of the first people to view and take it in. Our guide proudly walked us through each stage finally reaching the end where we had a tasting of three different kinds of balsamic vinegar of various ages.
Our second stop was the largest producer of both traditional and standard balsamic vinegar di Modena in the world. An absolutely massive complex where we had the chance to walk amongst hundreds of barrels of aging vinegar and follow the process of making the two types of balsamic vinegar of Modena. Partially destroyed by the earthquake of 2012 the rebuilt facility was very impressive paying respects to tradition in its architecture while still remaining modern. As a crowning feature of the rebuild, the largest barrel for holding balsamic vinegar (dubbed Hercules) was built, holding an insane 274 000 liters and taking three months to build on site.
Between our two tours and lengthy conversations with our hosts from the consortium we were able to understand what makes up a true balsamic vinegar and what sets it apart from its many imitators.
If you have ever shopped for balsamic vinegar you will notice that there is an overwhelming variety of vinegar to choose from at prices ranging from a few bucks to several hundred.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP
Modena is the home to balsamic vinegar and where the craze began centuries ago. Today the tradition continues and is kept alive and protected by the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Di Modena and the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Di Modena.
As one of the world’s most widely popular condiments, balsamic vinegar has been widely copied and reproduced in other countries. Grocery store imitations appearing to be the real deal are far more common than the true balsamic vinegar of Modena but with a little knowledge, you can be assured of purchasing an authentic product.
True balsamic vinegar will come from Modena (and Reggio Emilia), ground zero for its fascinating production. Traditional balsamic vinegar production is that of legend and well documented throughout history in its lengthy process.
Today traditional balsamic vinegar can be easily identified by the DOP insignia on the packaging and the bottle in which it is presented. You will always find traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena DOP in a small round flask with a solid rectangular bottom. The 100mL bottle was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro and is a guarantee that the product inside was tested for quality assurance by the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Di Modena.
The production of this cherished liquid is a time honored tradition and although there are many variations on the core recipe the methods and aging are standardized.
Firstly all of the grapes used to produce traditional balsamic vinegar come from the surrounding area of Modena and can include as many as six varieties of grapes Trebbiano, Occhio di Gatta, Spergola, Ancellotta, and Lambrusco.
The grapes, many of which are grown on the same vineyards that produce grapes for winemaking, are harvested in autumn at their peak of acidity to sugar ratio.
Traditionally pressed by treading, the goal was to very gently extract the must, that is why children were sometimes recruited for the job or adults would slightly suspend themselves with a pole lightly dancing over the grapes. Modern presses eventually took over to obtain the raw grape must.
Before fermentation sets in the must is filtered and decanted into a large open cauldron to be slowly boiled for at least twenty-four hours in order to reduce the must to concentrate its sugars without caramelization. The cooked grape must is then cooled and allowed to settle where the amazing process of alcoholic fermentation, acetic oxidation and time creates traditional balsamic vinegar.
Fermentation takes place in a set of wooden barrels known as a “batteria”. A batteria will be made up of three to ten barrels that reduce in size as the vinegar ages. Each barrel is made of different wood to influence the flavor of the vinegar as it ages and aid in the process. The first and largest barrels are usually made of softer and more porous wood (like oak) in order to aid in evaporation and acidification. At the end of the process, more hardwoods are needed to conserve the aged vinegar. The most frequently used woods are oak, chestnut, cherry, mulberry, and juniper although there is no hard and fast rule of what woods will make up your batteria.
In fact, this is what would separate each producer’s recipe and flavor, decided by their choice of barrel types at each stage of fermentation.
Every year between October and March the fermenting must is transferred from barrel to barrel. Starting with the smallest barrel in the batteria, the reduced (and oldest) vinegar is topped up with the vinegar from the barrel before it, repeating the process down the batteria to the largest barrel that is topped up with newly boiled grape must. The entire process will take at least 12 years but sometimes longer depending on the seasons that pass.
The unique climate of the Modena area with its stifling hot summers and cool humid winters is what determines the speed and quality of fermentation within the aging attics.
Each barrel has an open bung hole on top allowing evaporation to take place. The holes are traditionally covered by a piece of cloth held in place by a river stone to keep out pests and flies. The stones of older barrels can be seen to have been eaten away by the acid vapors which in turn leach their sediment into the casks depositing calcareous substances into the vinegar, offsetting any excess acidity.
At the final stage and in order for the traditional balsamic vinegar to be allowed to be sold, each batch will be tested by the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Di Modena to determine if it is worthy of its moniker.
Many will be turned down and forced to be returned to the aging room but the ones that pass the rigorous tasting panel will be allowed to be bottled only in its specific flask and labeled with the DOP label.
The resulting vinegar is thick and viscous with an endless complexity and is used very sparingly as a condiment usually on cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano) fruit or meats. It can also be enjoyed simply on its own exemplifying the ultimate in sweet and sour flavors with the complexity of a world class wine.
Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP
Obviously, this lengthy and time-honored process creates a very expensive product that not everyone can afford and left the common man looking for a way to produce a balsamic vinegar with similar taste in much less time and for much less money.
The resulting product is now known as balsamic vinegar and what is most commonly used around the world. However, not all balsamic vinegar are created equal and Modena still remains the originator and authentic producer of today’s balsamic vinegar.
Unlike traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena (DOP), this method of production never sees a batteria but is created by the expert blending of the cooked grape must with wine vinegar in order to produce balsamic vinegar.
A very old process in itself, adopted by the less aristocratic population of the past to produce vinegar, its roots again are in Modena.
Wine vinegar and grape must
Superior quality wine vinegar and grape must from the region are what sets it apart from knockoffs and a designation of IGP status marked with its official brand assure a true balsamic vinegar of Modena.
Used in various ratios to determine the viscosity and flavor the grape must and wine vinegar are combined and aged in large barrels for a determined amount of time.
The thinner, more liquid balsamic vinegar having more wine vinegar and less grape must, will be more acidic and lend itself better to vinaigrettes and marinades while the more viscous and sweeter vinegar leans more towards a condiment like the traditional balsamic vinegar.
Cheap supermarket balsamic vinegar
Cheap supermarket balsamic vinegar with no IGP designation and eluding to be an authentic balsamic vinegar will contain inferior wine vinegar blended with low-quality grape must and other ingredients (including thickeners and coloring). In turn, there are no guarantees to the method used, the area of production and aging time. Not to mention the obvious damage this entails to the producers abiding by the rules and their trusting consumers.
Grape must and caramel
Producers of grape must are regulated by the consortium and as of today they are all from Italy; as for the wine vinegar, the producers are outside the consortium’s jurisdiction so no data is available. It is possible that a small amount of the wine vinegar comes from other European states (most probably Greece, France and Spain).
It should also be noted that a certain amount of caramel is allowed under the IGP designation in order to maintain traditional balsamic coloring and is most commonly used in the thinner versions where the wine vinegar ratio produces a lighter color.
Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP can still be expensive
Prices of IGP balsamic vinegar of Modena can still be expensive when you are looking at a less acidic, viscous version that will have more must and possibly more time in oak but compared to its traditionally produced counterpart it is much less expensive.
The biggest hurdle
The biggest hurdle for the consumer after making sure that they are purchasing a true balsamic vinegar di Modena (IGP label) remains to be able to identify the flavor profile within each bottle. Unfortunately, all of the balsamic vinegar producers of Modena can not agree on a shared labeling system that would give a better idea of what flavor profile lies within so until then you will just have to try as many as you can to find the vinegar that suits your taste.
With regards to choosing a traditional balsamic vinegar di Modena (DOP label and unique bottle) choosing a producer is much like choosing a bottle of the best possible Bordeaux but in this case, the year will have no bearing.
You can not go wrong
Essentially you can not go wrong as guaranteed by the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Di Modena and the only significant differences will be the nuances created by each producer’s choice in grapes and the makeup of their batteria. The DOP label will guarantee everything else falls within the strict standards laid out for its proper production.
We hope that we cleared a few things up for you about DOP and IGP balsamic vinegar and how to tell them apart from imposters.
This was only part of our day in Modena, stay tuned for what we did with the rest of our time in this quaint city.
Disclosure: We were hosted by the Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Di Modena, they were kind enough to help us get answers to our questions about the DOP and IGP labeling of balsamic vinegar.