Updated: Jul 25, 2020
We always loved balsamic vinegar. Not just the stuff to add to a salad, but the thicker, aged traditional balsamic vinegar that we learned to drip over a nice parmagiano cheese. We thought I was pretty fancy, learning this little trick. Is cultured and worldly, understanding the difference between lesser quality balsamic from the grocery store and the aged stuff sold at gourmet food shops.
Here is an idea about how much actually goes into the process of making the real stuff – the Balsamico di Modena. The tradition, the process, the aging, and the history.
Some of the grapes become aceto di vino, which is the more common vinegar, that you might use in a salad. Balsamico di Modena, though, is completely different. The grape juice is heated by a fire, cooked in open air, and allowed to evaporate up to 50%, resulting in a much thicker product than regular old balsamic.
About 100 kg of grapes, creates about 75 liters of liquid. After this heating process, only 35 liters remain. Eventually, the liquid is placed into barrels, and then ultimately into a batteria, a series of, generally, 5 barrels, made of different kinds of wood, for aging.
The concept of a batteria became kind of fascinating . A lot of wine is aged in oak barrels, but Balsamico di Modena is not made in a similar process. Instead, the batteria, the group of 5 barrels, are different in size, with each barrel getting increasingly smaller. The barrels within the batteria are often made of different types of wood, like chestnut, ash, or juniper.
We explained the process of aging the traditional balsamic vinegar with an analogy to schooling. The largest barrel is like elementary school, then middle school, then superior school, then university, and then a masters program. Only a few people graduate with a masters degree. Similar, only a small amount of balsamic makes its way to the smallest barrel in the batteria. The aging process involves the transferring of the vinegar from the largest to the smallest over time. Each level of schooling produces fewer and fewer graduates, just as each barrel products a smaller and smaller amount of traditional balsamic vinegar over time.
Historically, almost every family in Emilia Romagna would have had a batteria for making their own balsamic. When a new child was born to the family, a new batteria would be christened, along with the baby. That batteria would then be gifted to the child on their wedding day, as part of a dowry.
An acetaia, though, might have dozens of batterias, with possibly hundreds of individual barrels. They are all stored in the attic, where there is the greatest change in temperature over the seasons, from cold in the winter to hot in the summer, which also affects the aging process. Fascinating.
And, remember that 100kg, turned into 75 liters, turned into 35 liters …. well, in the end a single liter, or maybe two liters tops, comes from the smallest barrel in the batteria each year. After 25 years of work, from 100 kg of grapes, you get maybe one or two liters of aged Balsamico di Modena.
The consortium in Emilia Romagna that regulates Balsamico di Modena, sets the standards in the region, allowing traditional balsamic vinegar that has been aged at least 12 years to be considered aceto balsamico di Modena tradizionale. When aged at least 25 years, it can be deemed extravecchio, or extra old.
The consortium even dictates that all registered users bottle their traditional balsamic vinegar using the exact same bottle, with the same color top, either orange or gold, depending on the age. They are not allowed to say anywhere on the label that it is 12 years old or 25 years old, only that it is either tradizionale, or extravecchio, that’s it. This is because the aging process does not allow an acetaia to know for sure the vintage of the vinegar, like a winery. There is so much mixing and transferring and tradition, that all they can say is at least 12, or at least 25.