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80 year old balsamic vinegar

Photo courtesy of valkyrieh116(CC ShareALike)

     Olive oil is now being taken seriously by the culinary world for its health benefitting properties and its distinct and desirable flavor. It is now an uncontested staple in the modern kitchen with an entire movement behind it. But there is one other condiment that is fundamentally riding the coattails of olive oil as the association is tried and true by Italian restaurants everywhere. It’s made from grapes, originally from Modena, Italy, and may cause you to make a ‘sour face’. 

Welcome, Balsamic Vinegar

     Balsamic Vinegar, like olive oil, has a history going back millennia, perhaps more so than olive oil, with the mentioning of aged grape must being referred to as far back as in a Virgil poem in 30 B.C and has steadily accumulated legendary status.

      Vinegar formation is a naturally occurring phenomenon that happens when alcohol is exposed to air, as opposed to olive oil production which must be initiated by mechanical means. This process involves a lot of live bacteria and nature’s alchemy, giving a quality and authentic balsamic vinegar distinct character.

     But what is balsamic vinegar? What makes it different than other vinegars? Why have people been producing it for so long?

     Balsamic Vinegar is specifically aged grape must. The must itself must exclusively come from the Lambrusco or Trebbiano grapes and is traditionally aged over the course of years (upwards of 25, or longer!) in specified wooden barrels that range from cherry to juniper. 

     When you do have pure grape must from the specified grapes aged in the designated barrels over the qualified amount of time, you then have the possibility of having an authentic traditional balsamic vinegar. If it came from the region of Modena or Reggio, it may then be submitted to inspection and then, and only then, upon receiving an agreeable score, is the product legally labeled as a Traditional Balsamic, and it is given a serial number and notes of authentication. 

“If your idea of balsamic vinegar is what’s available at your supermarket, well… let’s just say that the product you pick up for $5 or $10 a bottle at your local grocery store is as different from the real stuff as extra virgin olive oil is from motor oil.”

     What is of interesting note is that while there has been huge ‘awakenings’ and resistance to adulterated olive oil, there are far fewer news pieces speaking of the very wide consumption of vaguely labeled balsamic vinegar and the falsehood of its origins. 

     While many people seem to know the concept that the best balsamic in the world is aged for at least twenty-five years, for even now, you have people seeking twenty-five year balsamic specifically, most people who have sought it out, are still likely to have never even tried it. Not even once. 

     Twenty-Five years, a quarter of a century, is a very long time to produce a singular product regardless of what it is, and with the lengthy incubation period comes a very high price. The average bottle of a properly aged Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is roughly $100 per 100ml with minimum variation in that pricing. There are no ways to avoid that reality. 

So how come you have people that have tried and tasted and love ’25-year’ Balsamic? The answer lies in differences in International law. 

asiago dop e aceto balsamico tradizionale di modena

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     In Italy, it is illegal to label anything that is not ‘Traditional Balsamic Vinegar’ as such because the authentic product is mandated by a select consul in making sure each bottle is given a serial number and color coded for authenticity. The term ‘traditional’ is being used beyond its ‘adjective’ status and is a legally binding term from the country of origin. 

     The real deal basically comes with a traceable certificate of authenticity. Every bottle. So then, how is one supposed to have an authentic Italian dinner when real balsamic is the price of a car payment? 

     Favorably, the same artisans who make the historical product, also create a household version that is immensely satisfying and equally well crafted. Recognized by the Italian government, this wallet-friendly product is a called a ‘condimento‘ and legally the word ‘tradizionale‘ may not be used to describe a ‘condimento‘ so there is no confusion as to what it is you are getting. Condimentos, instead of being pure grape must, will have aged wine vinegar introduced to the concoction. 

The quality of this vinegar has a huge impact on the final product. 

     Greater artisans will prefer a truly aged and quality wine vinegar and use it in the right proportion to each distinct batch. The exactness of this process is often held in secret regard. Condimentos will often have a minimum aging requirement of 60 days. The Italian government and councils have gone to extreme measures to regulate and educate those in desire of getting the real deal when it comes to balsamic vinegar. 

     For the U.S industry and market, the least regulated title falls under simply ‘Balsamico di Modena’ and this is, unfortunately, where the bulk of the product on the shelves lie. This is where products carrying large amounts of caramel coloring, distant cousin relationship to the regions of Modena and Reggiano, and added sugars are almost guaranteed. 

Mozzarella & vegetables

Photo courtesy of Luca Nebuloni(CC Attribution)

     In the United States, no such laws exist to protect the uninformed consumer, and this allows stores and franchises to sell ’25-year’ balsamic as long as it’s been aged up to twenty-five years. 

This means the 25 year balsamic you just bought for nearly $30 could have been aged for five minutes. 

The Olive Tap in Charlotte is one of the only known olive oil tasting bars to use the same regulations as Italy in order to provide quality balsamic vinegars at a consumer friendly price. We work with the same artisans who produce the ‘real deal’ to have a product of eminence, one that allows a reputation to be built, without breaking the bank.

And no, 25-star balsamic carries no official benchmark of quality that can be measured by any organization. 

May this begin to clear up some questions and hopefully allow you to challenge labels that are deceptive at best. Balsamic Vinegar, even in it’s accelerated affordable state, is a delicious addition to many meals and offers a host of health benefits as well. 


Why Balsamic Vinegar is not what you think it is? 

Everything You Need to Know About Balsamic Vinegar

Balsamic Vinegar is a Family Affair

Using Balsamic Vinegar

Beginning to Understand Balsamic Vinegar

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