There is still a lot of confusion about what constitutes a genuine Balsamic vinegar, or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, to give this Italian “black gold” its correct name. After all, anyone can walk into their local supermarket and find a string of different vinegars all bearing the name Balsamic Vinegar of Modena; this is confusing I know, but do not be fooled – this is a cheaper “imitation” and nothing at all like the product it tries to imitate. Most of cheaper bottles will contain cooked grape juice and ordinary red wine vinegar, and sometimes thickeners and caramel to sweeten and colour. These products are regulated by IGP labelling and producers can add these additives to obtain the right colour or density. Most of them are pleasant enough to use for salad dressing, and slightly sweeter than regular red wine vinegar.
What is real traditional balsamic vinegar then?
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, by contrast, is regulated every step of the way through the production and aging process and may only be produced in two areas, Modena and Reggio Emilia in the north of Italy, which is where you should go to find it and see how it is made. The best way to be sure that you are finding the real thing is to go on a Balsamic Tour to one of the producers, where you will learn all about the production process and how to recognise the genuine product. There are about 160 producers in the two regions, who make a total of just 75,000 bottles a year. The vinegar is made in the traditional age-old way, using mainly trebbiano grapes grown locally. The vinegar is aged in a succession of wooden barrels which become smaller and smaller until it has been maturing for at least 12 years, the minimum acceptable aging period for a Tradizionale Balsamic. At this stage the vinegar will be tasted by the regulatory body, the Consorzio to which the producer belongs, and if it is passed it will be labelled affinato, indicating a young Balsamic, and is bottled with a white top, in both Modena and Reggio Emilia.
Extra old balsamic vinegars in Modena and Reggio Emilia.
About 30 – 40% of the product is then further aged until it reaches 25 or even 30 years old. A really well matured over 25 year old Balsamic is labelled extra vecchio (very old) and will be bottled with a gold top in both regions. In Reggio Emilia, there is a third designation for vinegars that have been matured for at least 18 years – they are labelled vecchio (old) and bottled with a gold top. The bottle shapes are also distinctive for each region; in Modena they use a rounded globe-shaped bottle with a rectangular base and a long neck, while the Reggio Emilia bottle is straighter and has a slightly flared base.
Many of the producers (acetaia) in the Modena and Reggio Emilia region are very happy to take you on a tour of their establishments, but most will require advance booking if you are not part of a tour. Acetaia di Giorgio is one of the producers in Modena who will give you a genuine welcome and an excellent tour, including the chance to taste several different balsamics, while in Reggio Emilia, Acetaia Medici is a good choice since they not only make excellent Balsamic, but also several wonderful wines.
Emilia Delizia will be delighted to organise a traditional balsamic tour for your group, big or small. Our company can organise an all inclusive day with transport and English speaking guide, departing from Bologna, Modena, Reggio Emilia and Parma.