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The difference between Traditional Method Aging, and the other 95%
Our Dark Balsamic Vinegar, also known as a "Traditional Style Condimento, aged up to 18 years" is made in Modena, Italy utilizing the Solera Method. It is of the utmost quality, prepared from cooked, high quality caramelized grape must from sound, ripe Trebbiano grapes (and on rare occassions Lambrusco grapes).
Our Dark Balsamic Condimento is one of the few in existence which actually contains grape must that was cooked over an open wood fire in copper kettles. Our must is cooked down to the same consistency, density, and dry solid extracts actually required to make true Italian DOP Traditional Balsamico (which dictates that wood-fire-cooked grape must, has to be be put directly into old, fired wood barrels which were used to age balsamic for decades. These barrels are comprised of various types of specially selected wood and become progressively smaller as the product becomes thicker and evaporates over time).
Our supplier uses this time honored artisan method of cooking in copper to caramelize the grape sugar to create a naturally dark, complex product which does not rely on the aid of artificial caramel color. Most balsamics, including many even originating from Modena Italy do contain caramel color to give the appearance that the must was in fact cooked in the Traditional Method in copper over an open wood fire. However, most producers rely on the new technology of vacuum evaporating the must, which is a far more efficient and cost effective method to remove moisture from grape must, but leaves an anemic, watery product which lacks flavor and needs to be artificially colored to achieve the deep, rich brown which most consumers equate to dark balsamic vinegar. These "balsamic-like" products contain artificial colorings and flavoring as well as added thickeners, refined sugars and copious amounts of un-aged, cheap wine or distilled vinegar and are often stored in stainless steel rather than wood condensing barrels.
Our Dark Balsamic Condimento is inoculated with a very small amount of premium quality aged red wine vinegar (<2%), which introduces the natural acetic bacteria and yeast and begins the conversion process from cooked grape must to Balsamic Vinegar Condimento . It is then aged using the Solera Method, which means that it goes through a succession succession of different types of very old, fired wood barrels (mulberry, oak, cherry, juniper and ash), each of which previously contained residual amounts of older balsamic dating back as far as 18 years prior, and in some cases 25 years. It is aged for a minimum of two years and up to 18, while being topped off with must as it moves from barrel to barrel, evaporating and naturally condensing. Our Dark Balsamics have a very low acidity (4 to 4 1/2% ) due to this time honored aging process.
Our "White Balsamic Vinegar Condimento, aged up to 12 years" blends white grape must with white wine vinegar and is cooked at very low temperatures to avoid any darkening. It is also aged in wood barrels using the Solera Method, but only up to 12 years, which results in a slightly more acidic 5 1/2% rating. The "whites" are often used in lighter colored foods, dressings or sauces without any discoloring. They are considered by many to have a "crisper, more tart taste" than the sweeter "darks".
MORE DETAILS REGARDING TRUE ITALIAN DOP CERTIFIED TRADITIONAL BALSAMICO......
By Italian law, true Italian DOP Traditional Balsamic Vinegar is made in a very precise manner. Nothing is ever added to the cooked, carmelized must and the process of its conversion to vinegar is excruciatingly slow. It happens as pro-biotic wild yeast and acetic bacteria from previous batches colonize it and eventually convert it by raising the acidity. It slowly ages in this manner and turns into "vinegar" by itself over the course of many years as it progressively moves from barrel to barrel over those years. By law it must then be tested for quality by measuring many criteria, including sensory apsects, and the dried extract solids which speak to evaporation through aging. It can then ONLY be sold in tiny bottles (approx 1 oz) which are identical, based on two exclusive regions of production: Emilio Reggiano or Modena Italy. The bottles from each region are uniform in size and shape regardless of who produced the balsamic. If a particular producer's balsamic meets very strict criteria, it is then certified DOP, wax sealed and numbered for individual sale. The wax sealed, numbered bottles into which it is placed MUST ONLY BE SOLD IN A BOXED SET, NEVER AS A LOOSE BOTTLE BY ITSELF. IT IS NEVER, EVER SOLD IN OTHER TYPES OF BOTTLES OR IN BULK, EVER !!
DOP Certified Balsamic is a very treasured, extremely thick balsamic that is never used for cooking. It is far too prized and expensive. Specific age claims are prohibited by Italian law as balsamic is aged in barrels that contained previous batches of product which means that they are technically not of a single batch or age. Traditional balsamic is typically enjoyed drop by drop on a spoon after a meal and sometimes on a small piece of cheese or with fruit.
[The tiny little boxed set , DOP consortium licensed bottles typically retail in the United States for hundreds of dollars (how many hundreds varies according to classification. For example "Red" (aged up to 18 years), "Silver (aged up to 25 years) and "Gold" (aged 25 years +) for the Dark Balsamics, and "White" (aged up to 12 years) and "Gold" (aged up to 25 years) for the White Balsamics.]
The primary difference between DOP Traditional Balsamico and our Balsamic Condimento is that, out of the gate, ours is inoculated with a very small amount of premium quality barrel-aged red wine vinegar (<2%) (and white vinegar for the whites). The rest of the Solera System of wood-fired, copper kettle cooking and barrel aging is quite the same and thus our condensed end product is strikingly similar in both taste and consistency, resulting in a very high quality Balsamic Condimento.
BALSAMIC INDUSTRY UPDATE.......
Cooking in copper kettles to caramelize the grape sugar must is more than just a quaint or romantic production step. Cooking down the grape must in copper is a rare production step that makes a monumental difference in terms of the quality and authenticity of the end product. Today, most producers in Italy have opted for the vastly more efficient and modern method of condensing grape juice into a concentrate using the relatively new process of vacuum evaporation. The use of this technology also typically necessitates the addition of up to 2% caramel coloring/dye to be added to the otherwise pale, anemic white grape must in order to add a deep, rich, mohagony-brown color. This practice was recently sanctioned by Italian law to allow producers to give the end consumer a false impression that the grape must was in fact cooked and caramelized in the "Traditional Style" in copper kettles.
However, it is not legal in Italy or North America, or most other countries, to add an artificial color or any other ingredients to a product and not disclose them on the ingredient statement. Despite this, many retail products labeled as balsamic do contain artificial colors, thickeners and types of refined sugar, which are not disclosed on the product's ingredient statement. Our Traditional Style Condimento, and all of our infused dark balsamics which are made with it, are certified on Third Party Certificate of Analysis to contain no caramel color, thickeners, or forms of refined sugar. It is conservatively estimated that upwards of 95% of all retail products labeled as "balsamic" do contain caramel color despite non-disclosure of it and other extraneous ingredients on the ingredient statement. With no domestic industry in North America to protect, there is little to no interest in regulation of this product category by government, and with the most proficient third party labs that test for fraud being in Italy, adulteration is rampant in this product category. Even when the product is tested in proficient labs, it is incredibly difficult to test for caramel color as it is typically added in less than 2% by volume and requires very specific testing methods to identify it.
In relation to the artisan method which is used to produce it, our Condimento is lab certified to have an extraordinarily high minimum relative density of 1.28+, which is the highest minimum measured density on file for any standard. It is measured by a third party lab in Italy and carries traceability through each batch's certificate of analysis. We are extremely proud that our Condimento contains on average, a whopping 749+ grams of dried extract solids per liter, which is a lab measurement that speaks to the extreme loss of moisture through natural evaporation which occurs in the cooking process and also while it ages in five types of wood barrels over time. The higher the amount of dried extract solids, the more complex a balsamic will be, as we are talking about the concentration of grape solids including grape sugar, which impart flavor and make for a thicker, naturally sweeter and more complex balsamic.