Balsamic vinegar, or aceto balsamico in Italian, is an umbrella term for a number of products that differ widely in quality, composition, production and geographic origin.
The original product, which has been manufactured since the Middle Ages, comes from the Italian provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia and is highly prized among gourmands.
Understanding the difference between the original product and inferior mass produced imitations is key in selecting a truly gourmet product.
What To Look For
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale (ABT)
ABT is true traditional and original balsamic vinegar that is only made in two Italian provinces, Modena and Reggio Emilia. It is an entirely natural product made from the pressed juice of white Trebbiano, Sauvignon (Modena), and Lambrusco (Reggio Emilia) grapes, which is cooked down to a syrup like reduction called mosto cotto. The reduction is then aged in wooden barrels for at least twelve years.
The resulting product is a rich, dark syrup with a deep flavor and a perfect blend of mellow sweetness and fine acidity, infused with the subtle scent of oak, cherry, or juniper, depending on which type of barrel was used. ABT aged in cherry and juniper barrels is especially rare and sought after.
Wild cherry and juniper trees can no longer be used for the production of barrels due to their protected status, leaving only old barrels for the process. These have become quite seldom, hence the often astronomical prices for these wonderfully aromatic vinegars.
ABT is a rare product with annual production limited to about 10,000 liters. ABT from Modena and Reggio Emilia has been awarded the EU’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, ensuring that only ABT produced in those regions and under strict regulations can legally be called Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena and Aceto Blasamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia.
ABT is sold in specific 100ml bottles that are labeled with different colored caps and labels to indicate its age. It is illegal to state the vinegar’s age on the label, but the term “extravecchio” is used to indicate ABT that has aged for more than 25 years.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (ABTM)
ABTM is traditionally made from Trebbiano and Sauvignon grapes and comes in two grades, aged for at least 12 years (cream colored cap), and aged more than 25 years (gold cap; may also be labeled “extravecchio”). It is usually less acidic and has a more mellow taste than ABT from Reggio Emilia.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia
It is available in three grades, aged at least 12 years (red label, called aragosta), at least 18 years (silver label, called argento), and more than 25 years (gold label, called oro).
When buying ABT look for the following to ensure authenticity:
- The label specifically states “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale”
- The specific form of the bottle
- The bottle contains 100ml
Aceto Balsamico di Modena
Only vinegar that carries the EU’s Protected Geographic Indication (PGI) label is actual Aceto Balsamico di Modena, which is subject to strict regulations. The most important of these are:
- The product must be made in the Italian province of Modena.
- It must contain at least 20% of cooked grape juice (mosto cotto) from specific grape types, including Trebbiano and Lambrusco.
- It must contain at least 10% wine vinegar.
- Caramel may be added to stabilize the finished product’s color.
- No other ingredients may be added.
- The vinegar must have aged in wooden barrels.
- It can be sold in containers of various material and size.
While the quality, origin, and production of Aceto Balsamico di Modena is legally protected by the PGI label and its regulations, the flavor, smell, and consistency are far inferior to the original Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. However, the often very high prices of ABT make a top quality Aceto Balsamico di Modena a good choice for everyday use.
We do not recommend the use of any other balsamic vinegar products, such as vinegars labeled “balsamic vinegar”, “aceto balsamico”, or any other labeling terms, because they do not guarantee a superior, strictly supervised product with specific geographic origin. These vinegars are often no more than flavored, colored, and thickened wine vinegar and have nothing in common with the original product. They are industrially produced cheap imitations of an artisanal product.
How To Use It
In order to fully appreciate the unique aroma of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, it should never be boiled and preferably added to finished dishes in small quantities. Ideally, it is used cold and drizzled over foods in small amounts.
It tastes spectacularly when paired with parmigiano reggiano, duck breast, duck pate, carpaccio, fish, meat dishes, parma ham, or pumpkin soup, but it is also divine spooned over ice cream or ripe strawberries. Its superb flavor even lends itself to be enjoyed pure as an aperitif or after dinner drink.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale should not be paired with dishes that are spicy, contain spices such as pepper, chili, or star anise, or dishes that are cooked with wine. Its wonderful taste is enhanced by vanilla, cinnamon, and juniper berries.
For salads and other dishes where the balsamico is added during cooking, a good quality Aceto Balsamico di Modena is preferable.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale has an infinite shelf life, even once it has been opened. It should be stored at room temperature, and never in the refrigerator. For serving at the table, a small decanter is best.