Q. What is balsamic vinegar?
A. It is a vinegar resulting from the single fermentation of grape must, which can only be called balsamic if it is made in the region of Emilia Romagna from specific grape varieties which are grown strictly in that region of Italy.
Q. When we talk about age in balsamic vinegar, what are we really talking about? Is there really such a thing as 18, 25, or 50 year old balsamic?
A. Interestingly enough, age is never listed on authentic balsamic vinegar wax sealed, stamped and originating from Modena, Italy. This is due to the somewhat slippery slope of marketing propaganda that has the Italians speaking out of both sides of their mouth. While trying to use age as a qualifier and for its romantic appeal and to help market balsamic to other countries such as North America, balsamic producers painted themselves in a corner. The idea that a copious amount of product from a tiny region in Italy has been strictly aged for 18, 25, or even 50 years, and is widely available in a bulk format is laughable. Instead, to tiptoe around the truth, the Italians decided to use the age of the barrel in which the product sat to determine its age designation: i.e. Vecchio, or Extra Vecchio – Now you’re scratching your head because this doesn’t actually tell you how long the balsamic sat in those barrels. And the reality is, that even in the case of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, it doesn’t sit in barrels for a full decade. So if you hear or see something along the lines of “this balsamic was aged for 25 years”, common sense and readily available facts must be applied to diffuse such misinformation. Balsamic vinegar aged in wooden barrels using the traditional system, and protocols for aging on average loses 10%-12% of its volume per year. If you were to start off by aging 55 gallons of a particular batch of must without ever adding to the volume for 25 years, in barrels, you would be left with approximately 3 – 3.5 gallons after 25 years. This product would be so dense; it would need to be scraped from the bottom of the barrel as it would not pour freely due to its extreme density. Such a product is extremely rare – so rare in fact, that it simply doesn’t leave Italy, and commands thousands of dollars per bottle if sold.
Q. So what criteria does determine quality in balsamic vinegar?
A. As is the case with just about any food product category, just because something is said to be authentic or of high quality, doesn’t mean that you can take that to the bank. As with the category of olive oil, this is a multi-faceted question and the indication of overall quality lies in the sensory experience, trace-ability, and laboratory analysis that’s been conducted. All that said, the highest quality balsamic in the world all share similar traits and best manufacture practices in common. The most important of these are:
– Made from ripe, sound grapes picked at their peak
– Only a small amount of barrel aged wine vinegar from Modena is added, if any
– No caramel color is used – or needed! (although it is permissible by Italian law)
– Must is cooked in kettles to naturally caramelize the grape sugar for complexity, natural mahogany color, and heighted natural density which comes from a loss in water volume through reduction over heat
– Aged in fired wood barrels which have been charred on the interior and which have been in continuous use for long periods of time. Such barrels will have contained previous batches of balsamic dating back for decades or even centuries. The residual must from prior batches add coveted complexity to the product. In addition, the barrels teem with very old strains of pro-biotics (acetic bacteria + yeast AKA the mother) are which are considered to be very much a part of the region’s “terrior”.
– Aging balsamic in multiple types of wood barrels is desirable. By using numerous types of wood, a balsamic maker can dramatically affect flavor and complexity as the balsamic ages in them over time. The more barrels in the system, the better. A minimum of three types of wood barrels are mandatory for aging product to be designated as “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale”. Our Traditional Style Balsamic is aged in five types of wood barrels including: oak, mulberry, ash, juniper, and cherry.
– Rapid loss of moisture though an open exchange of oxygen in the barrels is desirable for oxidation of the product, feeding the pro-biotic colony (which thrive in an oxygen rich environment), and evaporation. This happens through an opening in the barrel that is covered in fine cloth.
– None the less, there’s an extremely high economic incentive to not allow evaporation to occur at all thereby retaining most if not all of the initial volume. If the grape must sits in barrels at all, those barrels will only allow the product to become rich, complex, and naturally thick over time if they’re specifically designed to do so by allowing for 10%-12% evaporation of volume per year.
– How long a product sits in barrels can be important, but how the evaporation occurs (if at all) is just as, if not more important. This aging process ultimately affects the density and measurable dried extract solids of the product if tested in lab. The higher the density and dried extract solids, the higher quality the balsamic – which is evident in its complex taste and natural thickness.
– We have the highest density any bulk balsamic sold in North America at 1.28++ as measured by independent laboratory analysis per specific batch/lot.
Q. Can balsamic contain other ingredients such as thickeners, i.e. cornstarch, Xanthan gum, refined sugar etc. and still be considered authentic balsamic?
A. No. It’s like extra virgin olive oil in the sense that if anything is added, it loses any Italian designation it may have had. However, this concept is strictly predicated on Italian laws which define the category in Italy. Unlike olive oil which has some basic consensus worldwide for defining the various grades, it is only in Italy that you will find any regulation of the product categories and designations. However, it is strictly illegal in the United States and most other countries to add any ingredient if it is not clearly declared on the ingredient statement. This means that if a balsamic is clearly thickened with an additive, colored with artificial caramel dye, or contains any refined sugars, it must be accounted for on the ingredient declaration. There are severe penalties for non-compliance.
Q. What is the mother in balsamic vinegar?
A. The mother is the pro-biotic colony consisting of yeast and acetic bacteria which work in tandem to ferment the product. Acetic bacteria is unique in that it thrives in the high acidity of vinegar, whereas most other forms of bacteria would be killed by the extreme environment.
Q. Is the mother good or bad for me and the vinegar?
A. Strong research asserts that the pro-biotic found in vinegar which hasn’t been heat pasteurized to kill off the bacteria is very beneficial for gut health.
Q. Why would vinegar be heat pasteurized?
A. Heat pasteurization is mean to kill the bacteria and mother, so that the product can sit for extremely long periods of time on a supermarket shelf and not every have the mother manifest in the vinegar.
Q. Why does the mother show up so quickly some times?
A. Vinegar mother loves temperatures around 80 degrees F., light, and oxygen. All of these things speed up the formation of cellulose which is a byproduct of the mother’s fermentation process.
Q. Are there phenols in balsamic vinegar?
A. Yes, because the skins and flesh of the grape are all crushed to make balsamic, unique phenols, minerals, and vitamins are present in balsamic along with the pro-biotic colony, if unpasteurized.
Q. Do you measure these nutrients?
A. No, not yet.