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Balsamic vinegar is not all alike. Most homes in America that have balsamic vinegar in the pantry are not even aware of the variations in the product. Commercial grade balsamic vinegar is what most people buy.
Commercial balsamic vinegar (or balsamic vinegar of Modena) is basically an imitation of the original traditional balsamic vinegar. Made with wine vinegar, added coloring, and thickeners, these products are made to copy the thick texture and the sweet taste of aged traditional balsamic vinegar. The commercial products are not aged and are thus able to be produced on the large scale.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, or traditional balsamic vinegar, is a product requiring many years of fermentation. In the European Union, 12 years is the minimum fermentation period for any balsamic vinegar to be labeled as traditional balsamic vinegar. In Modena, Italy, they identify bottles of vinegar aged for at least 12 years with a cream-colored bottle cap. A magenta-colored cap indicates fermentation for 25 years or more.
In Reggio Emilia, Italy, a red label indicates vinegar that has aged for 12 years or more, a silver label for 18 years or more, and a gold label for 25 years or more. These top quality products are derived specifically from the Lambrusco or Trebbiano grapes. Traditional balsamic vinegar is first cooked into a reduction and then transferred every year or two into successively smaller barrels as it evaporates, ferments, and oxidizes. The wood barrels made of cherry, acacia, chestnut, ash, oak, or mulberry give a woody element to the sweet and sour flavor of the grapes.
Condiment balsamic vinegar is sometimes made in the traditional way, but for less than the 12 years required for label as traditional. It could also be made in the traditional way but diluted with reduced grape juice. Sometimes it is a blend of traditional balsamic vinegar and commercial balsamic vinegar. Thus the product is generally of a higher quality than the commercial product alone, but is a good deal more affordable than pure traditional balsamic vinegar.
The production of balsamic vinegar is a lengthy process. Like wine, it must be aged and fermented over time. It involves years of alcoholic fermenting, transferring from one container to the next and repeated adaptations and adjustments to produce the end result.
In Italy, 12 years minimum fermentation is required to label a product as “traditional” balsamic vinegar though the fermentation process can last up to 25 years. When done correctly and with care, the manufacturing process of balsamic vinegar produces a product that is unique and useful in a variety of culinary applications.
Balsamic vinegar uses grapes, traditionally white grapes, which are boiled down in a special process until the result is 30% of the original volume. This concentrated juice is the “must,” which will then be stored to begin fermentation.
The must is placed in large storage tanks or wood barrels for fermentation. Yeast is added or allowed to grow spontaneously to convert sugar into alcohol. Enzyme activity does much of the initial work. Either an acetobacter or strong wine vinegar is added for acidity. The acetobacter eats the alcohol, converting it into vinegar.
A series of barrels in decreasing sizes is called the “batteria.” The must, once properly fermented, is poured into the largest barrel at somewhere near 70% capacity. This ensures sufficient air for continued oxidation. 15% to 30% of the liquid will evaporate each year, shrinking the contents of the barrel. At the end of the year, the contents of a barrel are transferred to the next size down until several years later when the last barrel is ready to be poured out as balsamic vinegar.
As the water continues to evaporate from the product, the vinegar mellows, developing a strong sweet aroma. Usually, this process is performed in the heat of the summer, to increase microbial activity.
In Modena and Reggio, Italy, balsamic vinegar is manufactured in the ideal conditions of extreme fluctuations of temperature with hot summers and cool winters. Periodically, the manufacturers will make adjustments to the acidity or sugar levels for the best results. It is perhaps no surprise that with the difficulty and amount of time required to produce traditional balsamic vinegar, bottles can cost from $150 to $400 in U.S. dollars.