Balsamic Vinegar: Discovering the Secrets of Modena’s Precious Elixir


Balsamic Vinegar: Discovering the Secrets of Modena’s Precious Elixir

11 April 2018

If the words balsamic vinegar call to mind the treacly sweet syrup that has become fashionable to dribble on anything from salad to ice cream, think again. Supermarket shelves are stocked with inexpensive commercial brands, but traditional balsamic vinegar is so costly and prized that it is known as “black gold”.

All of Italy is known for its iconic cuisine, but nowhere is it more lusciously rich than in Emilia-Romagna—so much so that the region’s capital city of Bologna is known colloquially as “La Grassa”, or “The Fat Lady”. Some of the Italian dishes that are the most famous and beloved around the world hail from the gastro-mecca that stretches between Bologna and Parma, including fresh egg-pasta dishes like lasagna, tortellini, ravioli, and tagliatelle; meaty ragù; Parmigiano Reggiano; and Prosciutto di Parma. Exactly halfway between these two foodie cities, another of the region’s traditional specialties is produced: Aceto Balsamico di Modena. Curious gourmands can stop at one of the many artisan balsamic vinegar producers that dot the countryside outside of Modena and Reggio Emilia to learn the fascinating history of this delicious elixir, see how it is made, and sample different aged varieties.

What is Balsamic Vinegar?

a close up of balsamic vinegar pooling in oil Vinegar in Oil - by Chris Dlugosz

As opposed to chemically cloying industrial knock-offs, real Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia is made from a reduction of grape must from Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes, called mosto cotto. The thick liquid is then fermented in wood barrels during a lengthy ageing process, which lasts a minimum of 12 years, though the more prestigious vinegar can be aged over 25 years. The final liqueur-like liquid is conserved in miniature bottles with colour-coded tops that indicate how long the contents have been aged and protected by EU DOP certification as rigorous as that of wine.

What’s in a Name?

Despite what the name suggests, balsamic vinegar does not contain balsam, the sap that certain kinds of trees and shrubs produce. Instead, the name derives from the Latin term balsamum, meaning curative,as the first precursors of balsamic vinegar In the Middle Ages were used for medicinal purposes.

Balsamic Vinegar Tours

Wood barrels with ageing balsamic vinegar stacked on shelves Ageing barrels - by Nicole De Khors

Touring one of Emilia-Romagna’s artisanal balsamic vinegar producers—known as an acetaia—is a memorable lesson in the value of time and patience. Visitors follow the vinegar-making process from the first phase when the must is boiled down over low heat for 12 to 24 hours until it reduces to between 50-70% of its original volume. The mosto cotto is then poured into the badessa, or special cask where the first fermentation takes place. Afterwards, the liquid is moved to aging barrels made from a variety of different woods depending on each individual acetaia—though most often ash and oak are used for the smallest barrels, chestnut and cherry for the medium-sized, and mulberry wood barrels for the largest—and stored in groups organized by decreasing size, beginning with 50 liters and ending with 15. One of the most interesting stages in the process is the solera, a traditional method of fractional blending. A small amount of vinegar is decanted from the smallest barrel in each group and replaced with the same amount of vinegar from the next largest barrel, continuing on through each barrel size. The final and largest barrel in each group is finally topped off with new fermented must from the badessa. Because of this process, all finished balsamic vinegar contains a blend of different ages of fermented must.

A Noble History

During the Renaissance, noble families in and around Modena were passionate producers and consumers of aceto balsamico, and many had special rooms in the attics of their palaces to age their precious bottles.
The delicate solera is a skill passed down through the generations and requires both technique and instinct to correctly gauge the precise moment to decant a few litres of the finished vinegar and replace it with younger vinegar, and the exact proportions for a flawless final product. The madre d’aceto, or bacterial vinegar mothers in the bottom of the barrels—needed to convert the must into vinegar—have also been passed down for centuries and are part of the “secret recipe” carefully guarded by each family acetaia. Tours end in the final ageing rooms, an attic that looks like a wine cellar in miniature, with tiny barrels filled with the few litres of balsamic vinegar drawn from the smallest ageing barrel lining the walls and the air thick with the scent of the ageing vinegar.

Eau de Balsam

A percentage of each batch of vinegar, known as “la quota degli angeli”, or “the angels’ share”, is lost to evaporation during the aging process, and vinegar droplets permeate the air—and your clothing, that will smell of balsamic vinegar for hours after you leave.

Tasting Aceto Balsamico

A marble plate with garlic, herbs and a bowl with oil and balsamic vinegar Italian Flavours - by Joanna Kosinska

Any tour of an acetaia ends with a tasting, when visitors sample a variety of aged vinegar, sipped delicately from tiny glasses like a rich, umber liqueur. The flavour is pervasive and complex, with notes of sweetness from the concentrated must offset by the bite of fermented vinegar, the smoke of caramelized sugar, and the spice of aged wood. These sophisticated bottles of vinegar are not meant to be wasted as a salad dressing but instead savoured with tiny bites of cheese (local Parmigiano Reggiano is a favourite) or fruit like strawberries.

Purchasing Black Gold.

Most acetaie sell their precious wares in tiny, rounded bottles (even the shape of the bottle for this protected product is dictated by the traditional balsamic vinegar consortium) which can be taken home as a delicious memento of your visit. 

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