Learning The Basics of Balsamic

For a  project I’m working on with The Groop in downtown LA, I’m learning about Balsamic Vinegar.

Our Italian client is launching a new brand around this tasty product and they appear to be making some smart moves- including hiring The Groop! We are taking on many of their identity and branding efforts, which I will discuss in future posts. However, what is most interesting as I dive deep into the culture of Balsamic, is how little I knew about this unique product. Let me share some info with you.

The following is a brief primary from Gourmet Retailer:

Article Title: Traditional Balsamic Vinegar

Shrouded in mystery and steeped in tradition that extends back centuries, balsamic vinegar remains one of the most popular and yet misunderstood items in the specialty food world. Balsamic is unique among vinegars in that the juice from the grapes never becomes wine, but rather goes from a cooked grape “must” through a singular process that transforms it into a rich, viscous elixir considered to be one of the greatest condiments in the world. Floor personnel, faced with varying levels of quality, age, and price, should be able to separate fact from fiction, and dispel the myths and misconceptions about the balsamic vinegar category. This is especially important in light of the preciousness of the most expensive Aceto that would preclude regular tastings. Following is a primer on this sublime ingredient that in a very short time has become one of America’s favorite vinegars.

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Hint: a gift idea for Charles Erdman

What is balsamic vinegar of Modena?

Two completely different products lie within the category of balsamic vinegar of Modena — traditional and commercial — and each is subject to completely different production methods, trade associations, and legal requirements in Italy.

Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena is a very rare product that is always expensive. It is produced from the cooked and filtered “must” (the juice of crushed grapes) derived primarily from late-harvest Trebbiano grapes. The “must” is aged in different types of wooden casks for a minimum of 12 years in what is one of the world’s most unique and important culinary traditions. The content of the final cask is brought to the consortium in Modena, which is the governing body that certifies traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena.

If the product passes inspection, the producer is authorized to have the product bottled by the consortium in its patented 3.5-ounce bottle. Aging claims are forbidden on labels, and the difference between 12 and 25 years is indicated by a seal on each label (white or gold). The vast majority of balsamic vinegar of Modena consumed in the U.S. is commercial. Commercial vinegar is the result of the fermentation of two ingredients, cooked or concentrated “must” made from grapes of the local region and red wine vinegar. No legal aging requirements exist for the production of commercial vinegar. Usually, but not always, it is aged for a short time. Again, aging claims on the label are not allowed.

Does a balsamic vinegar that claims to be aged mean that I am getting better quality?

Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena is verifiably aged, and its quality is strictly enforced and regulated by the consortium. However, very few consumers are willing to pay $100 or more for a 3.5-ounce bottle.

The quality of commercial balsamic vinegar is determined mainly by the quality and quantity of “must” in the product, which can be measured by lab tests. There is no aging requirement by law in Italy for commercial vinegar, and the majority of it is not aged at all. The differences in commercial prices are generally due to differences in the quantities and qualities of “must.” Aging also plays an important role, as does the type of wood, size of the barrels, etc. There are some extraordinary commercial products that are made in the traditional manner and thus, are very expensive as well.

Charles Erdman, information architect

How do I know which type of balsamic vinegar to use?

Fortunately for American consumers, an Association of Italian Balsamic Tasters (A.I.B., or Assaggiatori Italiani Balsamico) has been formed in Italy to establish a labeling system to help sort out the various levels of quality and price, and how best to use them. Some producers have divided the product into four categories that indicate the different characteristics, as well as the recommended usage for each level. The labels have varying numbers of vine leaves under a chef’s hat.

One leaf indicates a moderate-density vinegar, which is best used for salad dressing. Two leaves signify a greater density and should be used for salads, marinades, and BBQs. Vinegar with three leaves on its label is characterized by sweetness, with scents of spices and wood. This level is excellent served simply with cheese, strawberries, or other fresh fruits. Four leaves indicate exceptionally smooth and thick authentic balsamico tradizionale, and should be used for the highest culinary creations, such as transforming — with a mere drop — a perfect steak, serving as a last-minute addition to a sauce, or as the Italians do, sipping it as a digestivo.

End of Article

Once we receive final approval to make public, I’ll release screen shots of the wireframes and the design solution. We will be using a lot of video and weaving it in to the online experience. Until then, happy eating!

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