Families in Modena and Reggio Emilia really do start balsamic for their children when they are born. One producer we recently visited had two batteries in the front of the factory (Acetaia) of brand new barrels for the owner’s newborn children. As the story goes, balsamic is started for the children to enjoy when their parents have passed away. The vinegar evaporates over time, as it passes through each barrel or each of life’s chapters, with a portion going to the angels. It is a beautiful creation myth for a product that is amazingly rich in flavor and history.
People correctly wax rhapsodic when they describe balsamic. Some describe balsamic as tasting of dried cherries or stewed cherries, like raisins or tobacco, with cedar or vanilla tones. All of these descriptions are valid, but the most accurate description is that it tastes of time. Whether you enjoy a 12 year balsamic, or one that has aged for 50 years is a matter of preference. However, there is a great deal of difference between an artisan produced Balsamic, and the industrial product. Most industrial vinegars are cooked too aggressively and adjusted with caramel coloring. sugar and red wine vinegar. In the best possible scenario, vinegar will be slowly aged in barrels to create something that inspires emotions and eludes description. When it comes to artisanally produced balsamic vinegar, each bottle has its own story.
A few facts about balsamic:
- True balsamic (PDO), Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, can only be produced in Reggio Emilia or Modena and must be at least 12 years old.
- Tradizionale will only be found in a 100ml bottle with a pipette neck and a bulbous bottom.
- Balsamic is made from proprietary combinations of both the Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes.
- The grapes are slowly cooked in open vats, for approximately 24 hours and reduced to ~ 50% original volume
- This cooking process is very important. If the reduction is too fast, or the heat is too high, certain yeasts will be killed and the vinegar will not be able to achieve alcoholic and acetic fermentation.
- The process of refilling the barrels, rincalzo, requires higher math. (Yield = mTBV/mRefilling)
- The battery- the series of barrels used to age and season the must.
- Badessa (120L) – often stainless steel though sometimes oak. Casks range in size from 70L to 5L
- Different wood types used to make Balsamico Tradizionale barrels: Oak, Mulberry, Ash, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Acacia
- The must is cooked in open fields, over wood by virgins.
- The oldest producers never clean or repair their barrels; they build new barrels around the old wood.
- The vinegar marches along the battery, removing a percentage from each successive barrel, each season, touching each wood before being bottled..
Each producer determines the acidity and brix at the beginning of the process and then decides the best process for the vinegar. Some vinegar will stay in oak for two years and three in ash, some will never touch juniper. While the grapes are different each year a producer will try to make a consistent and identifiable product. Some years the grapes cooperate with perfect balance and other years they don’t. If the grapes are especially high in acid and low in sugar a producer might mix more old vinegar in to increase the sugar at the beginning of the process or vice versa. Ultimately, vinegar that is harmonious without any pronounced flavors is what makes superior vinegar. All of this is a process determined by a little science and a lot of tasting.
We carry a number of excellent vinegars that are not true balsamic too. The Condimentos use the same process but are either too young to be Tradizionale or are not from Emilia-Romagna. We have Saba (mosto cotto) which is the cooked must that could have become balsamic, but decided to be a sweeter syrup. So if you are looking to stock the shelf with a beautiful Tradizionale to have with Parmesan or strawberries, or a Condimento for finishing a fine dressing, or even a Saba to drizzle over panna cotta we have plenty of tasty options.