Balsamic vinegar — aceto balsamico — has always been a big puzzle to most people. Its tangy sweet sour taste has made it one of the most popular condiments in America since the late seventies. However, most of the balsamic vinegar sold here has little in common with the real thing, which originated in Emilia-Romagna’s provinces of Modena and Reggio nearly a thousand years ago.
There are two kinds of balsamic vinegar: artisan-made and commercial. Buying artisanal vinegar — made of only grape must — the real thing and the most precious — is easy to recognize and never used in cooking or salads.
COMMERCIAL BALSAMIC VINEGAR
Commercial balsamic vinegars have flooded the American marketplace since the 70’s. With so many brands on the market and with price no indicator of quality, it’s nearly impossible to know what you are buying. The quality has actually declined in equal relation to its increasing popularity. Many brands that say “di Modena” are made in other cities or countries — Naples, Argentina, California. Some balsamics are mellow and rich while others sharp and raw. The most prevalent, and most commonly used balsamic vinegar is made of inferior wine vinegar, colored and flavored with caramel and herbs. In Italy this is called industriale — industrial style. It can be found in every supermarket and warehouse store. It is usually harsh, raw tasting, sharp and very acidic.
A more desirable commercial balsamic vinegar is made of a blend of high-quality wine vinegar, cooked- down grape must, and possibly some caramel. When well made they are a less complex rendition of artisanal vinegar, with finely balanced sweetness and acidity.
THE GUESSING GAME IS OVER?
I have just returned from the International Fancy Food Show in New York where I spent a considerable amount of time talking with producers of balsamic vinegar of Modena. My goal was to better understand the product and learn how to ferret out the best product amidst the deluge of vinegars in the marketplace. I share with you the results of my investigations:
Finally, a new and objective grading system for buying commercial balsamic vinegar of Modena has been introduced to define product quality and end buyer confusion. This grading system is slowly being introduced and should gradually appear in the marketplace.
Devised after years of study by the Associazione Assaggiatori Italiani Balsamico (AIB), a.k.a. the Italian Association of Tasters for Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, the system classifies the vinegar with a one to four grape-leaf certification, four leaves being the highest. This system identifies sensory qualities and not age; it is a guarantee of quality and product protection. The vinegar must be made in Modena and/or Emilia Romagna. The ingredients are mosto and wine vinegar. The mosto must be cooked over a direct fire and/or concentrated in a vacuum and only 2% caramel is allowed. The consortium for the AIB audits the producers every 6 months. The testing program subjects the vinegar to a detailed chemical analysis as well as a rigorous sensory appraisal by professional tasters. The vinegar is graded on its aroma, taste, aftertaste, and visual properties.
In an interview with a member of the AIB, I was also told there are currently 5 producers who adhere to this system with 4 more in the process of obtaining product certification. There are 42 million liters of commercial balsamic vinegar made yearly in Modena and 85% is from the consortium. Some Italian companies are also private labeling for American companies, i.e. Roland.
THE GRADING SYSTEM AND FLAVOR PROFILE
To familiarize consumers with the grading system, a necktag is being attached to the bottle explaining the classification:
• Four leaves. Superbly lush and intense. Syrupy with complex flavors and heady aroma.
• Three leaves. Smooth, full-bodied taste. Polished finish with tangy accent
• Two leaves. Round and spirited. Brisk yet vibrantly balanced.
• One leaf. Light in flavor and consistency. Sweet and zesty.
CERTIFICATE OF AGE
Some of the producers from the Consorzio have chosen to certify their vinegar by age by placing a colored band around the neck of the bottle:
Red/maroon color band certifies that the vinegar has been aged up to 3 years in wood. White color band certifies that the vinegar has been aged over 3 years in wood.
THE REAL QUESTION
Yes, the producers are trying to codify their vinegars but after perusing my local markets I was not able to find even one bottle with the grading system for flavor profile and only 2 bottles with a consortium neck band certifying the age! The mystery continues… I therefore suggest that you buy your balsamic vinegar in a store that allows you to taste the product before purchasing. Buy one that pleases your palate and most importantly that it suits the dish being served. Quite frankly, I think that the use of commercial balsamic vinegar is quite overdone. I much prefer drizzling red wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice with olive oil over my fresh summer green salad!
Here are my favorites:
Lush and intense — use by drops to season a dish just before serving
Smooth and pleasantly well-balanced — Combine with aged red wine vinegar in salad dressings
Light and zesty — for salad dressing, marinades, cooking
USING COMMERCIAL BALSAMIC
Store all balsamic vinegars in a cool, dark place like the kitchen cupboard — away from the stove.