Italian producers have been fighting for years to have sole control of the term "balsamico."

Credit: Stuart Ashley/Getty Images

Protected designations of origin are important, but they can also quickly slide down a slippery slope. Looking at the extremes, you want your Bordeaux wine to be from Bordeaux, France, but at the same time, no one expects their hamburger to be from Hamburg, Germany. So who deals with the massive gray area in the middle? Legislatures and courts—which is why we're often hearing about legal battles over food labels. These decisions set precedents not only for how producers can label their products, but also what consumers need to look for.

So here's something to know about a product you probably see a lot: balsamic vinegar. The European Union's highest court has ruled that "Aceto Balsamico" does not have to specifically come from the Italian region of Modena as long as the phrase does not include any additional geographic distinction. According to the BBC, the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled that even though the term Aceto Balsamico di Modena has been a registered protected geographical indication in Europe since 2009, that protection "does not extend to the use of non-geographical individual terms." The ruling also stated, "The term 'aceto' [vinegar] is a common term and the term 'balsamico' [balsamic] is an adjective that is commonly used to refer to a vinegar with a bitter-sweet flavor."

For consumers, it's a reminder that small differences in labeling can have a big difference in meaning. Italy does have three different protected balsamic vinegar designations: Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PDO), Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia DOP (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia PDO, and Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP (Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI). But if you don't see those distinctions on a label, there's no guarantee that the balsamic vinegar was produced in one of these regions—or even in Italy.

That said, the U.S. isn't required to respect all of the E.U.'s geographic indication rules to begin with, so even if "balsamic" had been given E.U. protection, it's unlikely the States would have reciprocated with protection of such a broadly used term. Still, it's worth knowing which balsamic vinegars the E.U. feels are worth protecting when doing your vinegar shopping.

In this particular case, the E.U. challenge came from a German vinegar producer that was using the term "balsamico" to sell its German-made balsamic vinegar. (Don't call it "Balsamic-style" because you don't have to.) Needless to say, the Consortium for Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, wasn't pleased at losing the legal battle which had dragged on for years. "We consider this decision to be totally unjust," Mariangela Grosoli, the group's president, said according to The Guardian. "The reality is that many European countries have partly wanted to appropriate the worldwide success achieved by Balsamic Vinegar of Modena—this is the only vinegar to be sweet-and-sour and to use the word 'balsamic,' a word that was attributed to it many centuries ago by the Este dukes, who thought it was medicinal." It's a nice history lesson, but apparently it doesn't help in court.