During one of my wine classes this week, we were discussing the wines of Italy. A question came up about Balsamic Vinegar. Now, I know my wine stuff, and I am pretty good with food, but I never really explored the world of vinegar. I do know (and have tasted many wines) that have turned to vinegar. So, I thought this might be a good subject to explore.

Vinegar [ˈvɪnɪgə]n  -  (Cookery) a sour-tasting liquid consisting of impure dilute acetic acid, made by oxidation of the ethyl alcohol in beer, wine, or cider. It is used as a condiment or preservative

There is a big difference between wine vinegar, and balsamic vinegar (not to mention cider vinegar, and rice vinegar, etc). And, they are actually two different products.

Vinegar can be made from any fermentable liquid. The presence of the acetic acid bacteria (acetobacter) during the fermentation process of sugars to ethanol creates vinegar. In general, traditional vinegars, are fermented slowly over a period of weeks or months. The longer fermentation period allows for the accumulation of a nontoxic slime composed of acetic acid bacteria. Quicker, more commercial methods are made with a "mother of vinegar" that is added to the fermenting must. This process can quicken the production time to under 3 days, and usually used in more commercial type vinegars.

Wine vinegar is made from red or white wine, and is the most commonly used vinegar in Europe and the United States. There is a considerable range in quality, just as with wine. The highest quality wine vinegars are matured in wood for up to two years, and exhibit a complex, mellow flavor. The most expensive wine vinegars are made from individual varieties of wine, such as Champagne or Sherry.

Where things get interesting, and where the original classroom question came up, was with Balsamic Vinegars. Traditional Balsamic vinegar is a product from Italy, produced in the Modena and Reggio Emilia regions of Italy. The names "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena" (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena) and "Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia" (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia) are protected names, under the DOC laws of Italy, and the new PDO laws of the European union.

Balsamic Vinegar in cask
True balsamic vinegar is made from a reduction of pressed Trebbiano and Lambrusco grape must. The must is boiled, and reduced to about 30% of its' original volume. The resulting thick syrup, called mosto cotto, in Italian, is aged for a minimum of 12 years in a series of successively smaller sized wooden casks. The casks can be made of different woods like oak, chestnut, mulberry, ash, and cherry. The juice slowly ferments, and concentrates over the years, producing a final product that is rich, deep brown in color with complex flavors which balance the natural sweet and sour elements of the cooked grape juice.

Reggio Emilia designates the different ages of their balsamic vinegar by label color. A red label means the vinegar has been aged for at least 12 years, a silver label has aged for at least 18 years and the gold label has aged for 25 years or more.

Modena uses a slightly different system to indicate the age. A cream-coloured cap means the vinegar has aged for at least 12 years; the magenta cap bearing the designation "extravecchio" (extra old) is for vinegar that has aged for at least 25 years.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is very expensive (somewhere between $50 to $130 per ounce). Obviously, there are other Balsamic Vinegars out there, that are less expensive, but they are not the traditional product. These commercial grade products imitate the traditional product. They are made of wine vinegar with the addition of coloring, caramel and sometimes thickeners to artificially simulate the sweetness and thickness of the aged traditional product. Or, some of the better "copies" of traditional Balsamic are made using traditional methods, but are not aged as long, or start out using the traditional methods, and simply add "mosto cotto" to the vinegar, to thicken, and produce an imitation product in a shorter time period. Since there is no official standard or labeling system to designate the different styles of balsamic vinegar, it can be hard to tell their quality based on the packaging alone..unless of course is says, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia.


  1. Very interesting, Jim. Thanks for the blog on this subject. Once you have tasted the authentic product from Modena, you never go back to the grocery store shelf for vinegar again!

  2. Hello. I work as the wind and vinegar Sommelier for winery in Picton Ontario. What is unique about this winery is that we have the only barrel maker and Cooper in the country as far as we know that still independently makes barrels but not only that Pete has also been making barrel aged vinegars and balsamic‘s the past 15 years. It’s interesting that you found it intriguing to look more into balsamic‘s because so many wine experts really have no idea when it comes to that particular part of the wine business

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