Classification of Balsamic Vinegar

The sweet, yet tangy flavor of balsamic vinegar is instantly distinguishable.  The unique flavor of this Italian vinegar lends itself well to dressings, marinades and even dessert sauces.  While the consistency of most commercial balsamic vinegars is quite thin, heating the vinegar until the liquid is reduced will thicken the vinegar.

The consistency that results from heating the vinegar is much thicker similar to syrup or honey.  Reduction also intensifies the sweetness of the balsamic vinegar making it the perfect accompaniment to ice cream with strawberries or drizzled over an olive oil cake.

When you go to the grocery store and look at the many different bottles of balsamic vinegar, do you ever wonder why some bottles seem to cost so much more than other bottles?  You might see words such as “aged”, “di Modena” or “tradizionale” on the various bottles.  Do you know what each of these words means in terms of the classification of balsamic vinegar?

Balsamic vinegar is produced in a way that is similar to how some wines are made.  The first determinant of how balsamic vinegar is classified and therefore labeled is the region in which it is produced.  There are two primary towns in Italy that produce the grapes that are used to make balsamic vinegar.  The two adjacent towns where the hillsides are ideal for growing these white grapes are Modena and Reggio Emilia.  Balsamic vinegar produced in Modena, Italy may bear the label “Aceto Balsamico di Modeno” simply meaning “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” and likewise the product produced in Reggio Emilia would be labeled “Aceto Balsamico di Reggio Emilia”.

The most common grape varieties used to produce balsamic vinegar are Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes.  These white grapes are cooked and then the grape juice is aged in wooden barrels similar to how many wines are stored while they age.  In order to earn the label “tradizionale”, a balsamic vinegar must be aged at least 12 years in these barrels.  To be classified as “extra aged”, the vinegar must be aged for 25 years.  The process of producing and aging the balsamic vinegar is very time and labor intensive. Tradizionale balsamic vinegar is the more expensive vinegar.  The tradizionale variety is only bottled in small, 100ml bottles and is most easily found in specialty food stores.  These small bottles can cost several hundreds of dollars for only a few ounces.  Although the tradizionale balsamic vinegar is costly, the product that is aged to perfection is very dark in color and thicker than less expensive varieties of balsamic vinegar.

In your average grocery store, what you will find are bottles of balsamic vinegar labeled “Aceto Balsamico di Modena” or “Aceto Balsamico di Reggio Emilia” and again, this label is simply describing the region where the vinegar was produced.  These bottles are likely much larger than the typical 100ml-sized tradizionale balsamic vinegar bottles and are also more reasonably priced.  This class of balsamic vinegar is usually made by mixing a small amount of balsamic vinegar that has been aged for at least ten years with a larger volume of grape juice.  This mixture is then fermented and concentrated for at least two months and up to three years.  If this balsamic vinegar is aged for at least three years, it can be labeled “aged”.  The color of this vinegar is not as dark nor is the consistency as thick as the tradizionale balsamic vinegar that has been aged for a much longer period of time.  However, the vinegar still has the sweet, tangy flavor that is characteristic of balsamic vinegar.

So, while most commercially sold balsamic vinegar varieties are likely not the more expensive tradizionale variety that has been aged for over twelve years, the commonly found bottles of balsamic vinegar still have a similar flavor profile.  If you are looking for a gift for a food-lover in your life, a bottle of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is sure to be a special treat.