Let’s look at the ingredients list. First is wine vinegar. Then concentrated grape must. “Must” is the winemaker’s term for unfermented grape juice. So concentrated grape must is just cooked grape juice. Next we see caramel, or cooked sugar, which gives the vinegar is characteristic colour, sweetness, and body. Finally we have sulfites, which inhibit micro-organisms and prevent unwanted fermentation. In other words, this condiment is sweetened vinegar.
Bottles labelled “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena” have a faux seal on them that says “Indicazione Geografica Protettata,” or IGP. This is an EU certification that guarantees a very basic level of quality, a broad style of production, and certifies that at least one part of that production occured in the indicated region, Modena in this case. None of the ingredients actually need to come from there: the grapes that created the vinegar and concentrated must could have been from other parts of Italy, or France, or Australia. The part of the process that takes place in Modena is the brief aging period: all the ingredients are combined and stored in a barrel for one year, then bottled.
Balsamic vinegar of Modena is a commercial product made on an industrial scale. I like it: I always have a bottle at home and I use it semi-regularly for salad dressing. Or sometimes I cook it down to a syrupy consistency and drizzle it on toast with honey. It’s tasty, but it is a pale shadow of the original, traditional vinegar on which it is based.
The photo at right shows a bottle of traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena. Instead of an IGP stamp, it has a DOP label: “denominazione di origine protettata”. DOP regulations are much more stringent than IGP. Let’s look at the ingredients list of this product.
There is actually only one ingredient that can be used to produce traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena: grape must.
So let’s talk about this grape must. First, the grapes must all come from around Modena, and they must be of only two varieties: Trebbiano and Lambrusco. The grapes are harvested, crushed, and pressed to make juice. This juice is then cooked very gently for about twenty four hours, preventing conventional fermentation and concentrating the natural sugars in the fruit.
Once the must is cool it is aged for several years in a series of wooden barrels called a batteria. There are usually five barrels in a batteria. They can be made out of any of six kinds of wood: mulberry, ash, cherrywood, chestnut, oak, or juniper. Each barrel has an opening at the top, covered only with cloth, so that the grape must is exposed to the air. As you can see in the photo below, the barrels are of different sizes, lined up on a rack so that they descend in volume.
It is in these barrels, without the addition of any yeast, that the grape must slowly (slowly!) ferments, first to an alcoholic mixture, then an acidic one. Moisture also evaporates through the opening in the barrels, so the must levels gradually drop month by month.
The batterie are always set up in an attic, where ambient temperatures fluctuate with the seasons. The micro-organisms working on the vinegar are active in the warm summer months, and stagnant in winter.
The final important aspect of a batteria is that it is a fractional blending system. Each year the producer is allowed to draw only one litre of vinegar from the smallest barrel. Then must is moved from the next largest barrel into the smallest. All the barrels are topped up with must from their larger neighbour. The largest barrel at the end is topped up with the season’s new must.
In other words:
- all the barrels contain a blend of musts from different years
- the largest barrel contains the youngest average age
- the smallest barrel contains the oldest average age
- the average age of all the must increases with each year
A batteria must be at least 12 years old before its vinegar can be sold as Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. Vinegar that is 25 years or older can earn a further classification called extravecchio (“extra old…”).
Before it can be bottled and sold, the one litre that is drawn from the smallest barrel of each batteria is evaluated by a consortium. It is tasted and scored, and if it is not deemed worthy it is returned to the batteria for another year, or longer. Once the consortium has approved a batch of vinegar, they give the producer a certain number of bottles and DOP labels.
Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena is always sold in a particular bottle designed by Giugiaro. The high speed train that I rode from Rome to Bologna was also designed by Guigiaro. Every Giugiaro balsamic vinegar bottle holds only 100 mL. Prices for one of these bottles vary greatly. I paid 40 Euros for the bottle of San Donnino shown above.
So, that’s how traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena is made. What do you do with it?
Firstly, you never cook it.
Secondly, you don’t make salad dressings with it, or mix it with oil or any other food: you put it directly onto food in small quantities.
The most classical use is as a condiment for cheese and cured meat, especially Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is made just down the road from Modena. It is also commonly added to mortadella, fish, and pasta.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is rarely served at restaurants because of it’s high cost. In fact I’ve only seen it in a restaurant twice. The first was at The French Laundry, where our server shook a few drops of 100 year old balsamic vinegar onto ricotta agnolotti. The second was at Osteria Franscescana in Modena. I ate a “croccantino,” which was a piece of foie gras coated in crushed almonds and hazenlnuts, filled with a generous glob of traditional balsamic. The foie was mounted on the end of a stubby wooden stick, like a popsicle.
It suddenly occurs to me that I haven’t told you what traditional balsamic vinegar tastes like. The reason this product deserves respect isn’t because of how long it takes to make or how expensive it is: it’s the taste. I learned what I know about traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena from Davide at San Donnino. He gave us a tour of his acetaia, and climbing into his attic and smelling those first wafts of balsamic was the most memorable moment of my entire stay in Italy. Yes, it smelled of vinegar, but with a pronounced aroma of dark, cooked sugar, like molasses. Later, when we tasted the vinegar, we found that it is not sharply acidic and simply sweet like the industrial version, but balanced, rounded, and again with that incredible, deep, blackstrap flavour.
We brought back a bottle of regular traditional, and a bottle of extravecchio. To taste this vinegar now is an incredible, visceral reminder of Modena. It has the transportive power usually associated with wine.
Thank you, Davide.
1. Pronounced “MOH-den-a”, not “mo-DEE-na”
2. Pronounced “a-che-TEYE-a”