Italian police have seized more than 9,000 tonnes of crushed grapes as part of an investigation into the fraudulent production of balsamic vinegar.
The fraudsters allegedly sold the common table grape must to companies which produce balsamic vinegar and passed it off as being from the prized sangiovese and trebbiano varieties.
Balsamic vinegar, famed for its concentrated and complex flavour, can legally be produced from seven specified grape varieties.
Fraudsters allegedly falsified quality certification documents, involving dozens of wine suppliers based in the regions of Sicily, Puglia, Campania, Lazio and Emilia-Romagna, where Modena, the Italian city synonymous with the vinegar, is located.
The inferior must was alledgedly used in the production of balsamic vinegar for several famous Italian companies, including AIMO (Acetifici Italiani Modena), and Acetum, the latter recently acquired by the British company ABS, said the fraud inspectorate.
“We do hundreds of inspections every day,” Stefano Vaccari, the head of the Central Repression of Fraud Inspectorate of the Ministry of Agriculture, said. “To think, Italy is the country that conducts the most checks in the world on wine products. This is not just a health problem … The problem is the reputation of products that are made in Italy. This is what we must defend.’’
AIMO, a major balsamic producer, unwittingly bought some of the fraudulent must and said it had been a victim of fraud, with one of its suppliers involved in the investigation. It said in a statement it was ready “to take legal action against the serious damage they have caused to the company image”.
Cesare Mazzetti, the president of Acetum, also spoke about the “damage to the image of one of the finest Made in Italy products”. He said the fraudsters were “marginal suppliers” and he wanted “to reassure our British customers that thanks to the police intervention the counterfeit must has not affected our products”.
Italy suffers from widespread food fraud. In 2015 several top Italian olive oil producers were investigated and fined for allegedly passing off lower-quality products as “extra virgin”, raising fresh concerns about consumer fraud in the industry.
A year previously, Italian police foiled a plot to flood the market with nearly half a million counterfeit bottles of Tuscany’s prized Brunello di Montalcino red wine.
According to a recent report by Coldiretti, the national farmers’ association, six out of 10 Italian food products sold on the international market suffer from some counterfeiting activity.
The original balsamic vinegar of Modena is made from a reduction of pressed specified grape varieties, including trebbiano, sangiovese and lambrusco grapes. The resulting thick syrup, called mosto cotto, is aged for a minimum of 12 years, sometimes over 100, in barrels made of cherrywood, chestnut or ash.
The Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is one of the three protected balsamic vinegars: the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia and Balsamic Vinegar of Modena being the other two. The final variety, which is the most common and and least expensive, is made from grapes blended with wine vinegar.
The rarest bottles of balsamic vinegar can cost up to €300.