Verona , with its close proximity to so many places, was a great choice for a home base. The excursion for today is another that I have been anxious to devour. Over the years, and certainly the travelling has been at least partially to blame, we have become ardent fans of balsamic vinegar. And now we are on the doorstep of its homeland.
Modena…pretty much the headquarters of balsamic vinegar. Just down the road from famous car manufacturers (Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini are all less than an hour from here) it is a city dating back to 1165. Pavarotti was born here (albeit somewhat later 🙂 ) As many sights that the city has to offer, given our limited time frame, there is but one that holds our attention today.
I had pre-arranged a tour of a balsamic vinegar factory with not a lot of knowledge as to what to expect. What greeted us was nothing that was envisioned.
A young man name Marcello greeted us and two other guests at the door and led us in to his home. The house has been in his family for over 100 hundred years, but does not show its age very much. Renovations over time have kept it updated, but the elegance remains.
The creation of balsamic vinegar is scrupulously controlled by the D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta – literally “Protected Designation of Origin”). Similar to D.O.C. & D.O.C.G. (which are used for wines in Italy), the D.O.P. is used for foods. The balsamic we buy in the stores at home is, almost always, not traditional balsamic.
First, the grapes must be white Trebbiano di Castelvetro which have been pressed and filtered to remove skins, seeds and stems. Then the juice is boiled until about 1/3 remains (that is called the ‘must’). This is what will become balsamic vinegar…over time. That, and barrels, are the only two things that make traditional balsamic vinegar. There are absolutely no other additives. Well…ok…one could argue that the barrels will add their own characteristics to the end product, but even those have specific criteria. There are only 6 kinds that can be used – Cherry, Mulberry, Juniper, Ash, Chestnut, and Oak.
Balsamic vinegar will age either fully in one type of barrel or a mixture of 2 or more. As the ageing process continues, about 20% per year is lost to ‘angel tears’ (evaporation). That loss is replaced from another, bigger, barrel. The bigger the barrel, the younger the vinegar so the loss is always made up from younger vinegar.
Another reduction in the barrel quantity will happen because of bottling. Bottling will only contain vinegar from the smallest barrels (ergo the oldest) and again, that amount will be replenished by younger vinegar from bigger barrels. Each year, this amounts to 4% of the total capacity (here, that is about 8000 liters which will equate to about 2000 x 100 ml bottles).
The D.O.P. controls the quality of the barrels as well. Each barrel, before it is used, is carefully inspected and, having passed inspection, is branded by the D.O.P. and then numbered by the owner. Therefore, any vinegar that is bottled can be traced back not only to the producer, but to the barrel it came from.
Once the vinegar is pronounced ready by the acetaio (akin to a winemaker), the organization once again steps in to give their own evaluation. If it meets their requirements, they, and only they, will do the actual bottling. The producer does not.
The bottles are also mandated to be a specific size (100 ml) and shape (see the picture). The front label will contain information about the vinegar (producer, etc.) and the crest of the producer. The back label is universal and will contain certain regulatory information.
By law, there must be an expiration date, but that is somewhat purposeless. First, the date is typically 10 years hence. More to the point, there are 2 ages of balsamic vinegar. A White Cap on the bottle designates balsamic at least 12 years old. A Gold Cap means it is at least 25 years old. Furthermore, during the entire ageing process (in the barrels) there is no bung in the barrel hole. It is simply covered by a cloth. Given that it has been open to the air for the past 12 years (or a lot longer) another 10 years is all but meaningless. Just store it in your pantry…never in your fridge. You will use it long before the 10 years is up.
A side note to the barrels. In this house, there are original barrels still in use that are 100 years old. They have been cleaned and repaired over time and recertified each time. Because of the constant refilling over time, there will still be (yes, miniscule quantities) some 100 year old vinegar in some of the smallest barrels. This constant replenishment also helps to ensure quality control. There is never a single year (vintage, if you will) of balsamic. It is always and forever, a blend.
Our tour ended with tiny samples of 5 vinegars that included a white cap special reserve coming from Juniper barrels, another white cap of mixed wood, a gold cap of mixed wood, and a gold cap from cherry barrels. The final was a special blend of woods by the producer that was started in 1986 in honor of the birth of his daughter. This blend was one of cherry, oak and chestnut. It was bottled in 2012.
Given a so limited and time consuming production, there is a corresponding price for this luxury. Fortunately one does not need much to savor the subtlety that oozes from each thick drop. If you can actually find some (probably in a specialty shop) and are willing to part with gold-like prices, you will find that sometimes, you can really get what you pay for.