There are two different Balsamico labels:
  • Aceto balsamico di Modena: a commercial denomination that indicates any vinegar satisfying a very loose definition of resemblance to the actual stuff. As the EU recently rejected a law to discipline this denomination, there is not even the requirement that the production is in any form connected to Modena.
    While some producers of decent - even very good - ``plain'' balsamico exist, in no way does labeling help to distinguish them (Hint: stuff that is not produced in Modena or nearby, is not usually top quality).

  • Aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena: tradizionale (traditional) makes all the difference: this is the actual - and expensive stuff. Its making is according to the rules dictated by the association of the producers.
    In the labeling system referred to by Ppuffo's writeup, gold indicates 25 years of aging, silver (or white) 12 - I am unsure about red.
    The tasting events that are mentioned above, and that are sponsored by the producers association (the Consorzio) do actually take place in the village of Spilamberto, 10 mile from Modena.

The making

Just a few details to complement sneff's work....

The acetaia or vinegar room is usually set up in an attic, where the intense heat of Modena's continental Summer will promote the right rate of evaporation. The barrels (which are 5 or 6 in number and are laid on the ground sideways) are not sealed or corked, rather, the large upper opening is covered with a light cloth secured with a weight (traditionally a round rock); this allows evaporation while stopping flies and other insects to enter the barrel.

The combination of temperature and humidity is essential for the formation of balsamico: while a similar vinegar may be produced in areas with a like climate (but nobody is doing it with success, not to my knowledge, at least), climates which differ radically from Modena's will usually severely degrade the quality of the final product.

Starting a batteria from new barrels is a rather complicated operation, where the barrels are prepared and primed with a mixture of strong vinegar wine and must for a few years, after which the operation called "rincalzo" (ridging) is performed yearly during the cold season (usually in October). A small quantity of mellow vinegar is taken out from the smallest barrel and this quantity is replaced by other product taken from the second smaller barrel, and this is repeated for all the barrels until the biggest one, that is filled up by cooked must of the current year.

Balsamico in the making is quite fragile: the bacterial sponge responsible for the fermentation process, (called madre dell'aceto - the mother of the vinegar) is vulnerable to several catastrophes, from the above mentioned flies, to several bacterial infections. These occurrences usually disrupt production for several years, because the affected barrels must be emptied and sterilized - balsamico is not for the impatient. Another common affection comes from the depletion that occurs if too much vinegar is taken for consumption.


source: adapted from

The origin of the balsamico is unknown: it may have been that a small quantity of cooked grapes' must (called saba and largely used in the Modena's traditional cooking) was forgotten and found again after a long time, having gone through a process of natural acetification and acquired the chracteristic sweet and sour taste.

The first written documents date back to the XI century when, in a chronicle of the benedictine Donizone, something is said about a small barrel of vinegar given as a present by Marquess Bonifacio, Sir of the Canossa castle and Matilde's father, to the King and future Emperor Enrico II of Franconia in the year 1046.

Around the year 1228 there is evidence that balsamico was being produced at the court of Obizzo II from the ducal family of Este. The diffusion of the balsamic started in the 1598 when the Duke of Este moved from Ferrara to Modena, that became the capital of the dukedom ; there are documents of this period that confirm the particular attention that the ducal court had for this product, that was usually reserved for the ducal family's consumption or as a present for very important people.

In the 1700 the balsamic was already known throughout Europe: archives documents testify that an english merchant and the Count Michele Woronzon, high chancellor of Moscovia, asked about balsamico the Duke Francesco III.

The balsamico was also known for its medicinal properties. In the treatise "Of the Government of the Plague and of the Ways of Bewaring of it " written by Ludovico Antonio Muratori, eminent modenese scholar, he describes some remedies based on the vinegar, useful as antidotes against the terrible disease.

Among all the devastations caused in Modena by the french revolution and the Napoleonic wars that followed, there is also the auction sale in 1796 on behest of the french republic, of the vinegar house of Duke Ercole III, situated in the west tower of the Ducal Palace of Modena. Probably not all the barrels were sold : on the 4th of may 1859, the ducal vinegar reserve was visited by Vittorio Emanuele II, the newly made king of Italy, and his prime minister Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour ; the next 24th of august the prime minister ordered to select all the best barrels and to transfer them to the Moncalieri's castle, where, due to the very poor knowledge about the balsamico manufacture, this immense treasure was inevitably lost.