what is balsamic vinegar?
Last month we visited Acetaia Leonardi, a balsamic vinegar producer in Modena, to learn about what balsamic vinegar is and how it’s made. We learned so much and were blown away by the process.
True balsamic vinegar can only be made in Modena, Italy because the specific bacteria that is needed lives in the atmosphere there. Balsamic vinegar is made with Trebbiano (white grape) and is commonly mixed with Lambrusco (red grape). The grapes are both naturally sweet, so there’s no need for added sugars. They’re crushed and the juice is cooked for two days at 60C (140F). Over the two days, the water evaporates and the juice becomes a concentrate of sugars (grape must). After cooking, the grape must is moved into a line of barrels to age where it will transform into balsamic vinegar. The line of barrels are made of barrels that increase in size.
The barrels are kept open so the bacteria in the air can make contact with the grape must and create a natural yeast. Unlike wine that is stored in cellars and ages in cooler climates year-round, the balsamic vinegar is usually stored in the attic. Climate is a really important factor in creating balsamic vinegar. In the hot summer as heat rises it helps activate the yeast. In the winter when the attics are the coldest part of the building, the yeast will go dormant until warmer months.
Every winter when the yeast is at the bottom of each barrel, the maker will remove ⅓ of the smallest barrel and sell it. They’ll then take the top of the second barrel and refill the first barrel, the top of the third barrel and refill the second barrel, and so on. The smallest barrel will always have the longest aged balsamic vinegar which is also the thickest. The maker can keep each barrel line indefinitely and Acetaia Leonardi had a barrel line that was 150 years old.
The barrels can be made of various different types of wood like chestnut, cherry, mulberry, juniper, ash, and oak. Each wood provides a specific characteristic to the balsamic vinegar. Oak has flavors of vanilla while cherry is much fruitier. Producers can create their own mixture of wood to produce a more universal balsamic vinegar or use a single wood barrel for a product that is great to be paired with something specific.
Balsamic vinegar starts to get thick once it’s been aged for 10 years. The longer it ages, the thicker and sweeter it becomes. Leonardi started making balsamic vinegar as a hobby and increased production for commercial sale when balsamic vinegar became more well known around the world in the 1990s.
Some fun facts about balsamic vinegar:
- In Modena, it’s very common for families to have barrels of balsamic vinegar in their attic.
- Historically, new lines were created with the birth of a daughter and then were gifted to her on her wedding day.
- Whoever creates the vinegar will never taste the best vintage.
- Balsamic vinegar has been around since the 1400-1500s, but it was only used for medicinal purposes.
The balsamic vinegar found at your local supermarket is a mix of balsamic vinegar and wine vinegar and is only aged for a few months to a few years. If you want to purchase traditional balsamic vinegar, you want to look for bottles with a DOP or PDO seal. The seal is the certification it’s from Modena or Reggio Emilia (a neighboring town) and follows the strict EU production regulations. Traditional balsamic vinegar is aged for over 10 years, tart, sweet, and syrupy. It’s highly crafted and very expensive selling for $50-$200 for a small bottle depending on how long it’s been aged.
Traditional balsamic vinegar is complex and rich, sweet and tangy, and is amazing on prosciutto, ice cream, strawberries, melon, and Parmigiano Reggiano. You can also put a few drops on a spoon and enjoy it on its own.
The process of making balsamic vinegar and the different types available is quite complex. If you’d like more information check out Elise Bauer’s article at simplerecipes.com. She went on a week-long educational trip in Italy to learn everything about balsamic vinegar. For more information on the balsamic vinegar maker we visited, please visit Acetaia Leonardi’s website.
Have you had traditional balsamic vinegar? Whether you have or haven’t, Modena definitely earns on spot on your “must-do” list the next time you’re in Italy.