Vivacious Vinegar: Italy’s Balsamic
by Kim D. McHugh
Photos courtesy Acetum – Balsamic Vinegar of Modena P.G.I.
I’m standing in an acetaia, Italian for “vinegar room”, watching as Giovanni Cavalli, the proprietor of this balsamic vinegar producing facility in Reggio Emilia nurtures his batches. Essentially a large villa, the two-story stone structure was easily 100 years old, unobtrusively blending in with similar villas in this farming community 16 miles east of Parma.
Stored in an attic in a series of aged wood barrels, some of which are more than 100 years old, the balsamic vinegar is maturing, a process that will take at least 12 years, and up to 30 years. The outside temperature on this June day is pushing 90 degrees. In the attic, it is 115 degrees—just the way aging balsamic vinegar likes it.
In this environment the fermenting process required to make this revered liquid revs into high gear, accelerating the ingredients toward qualifying as Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio-Emilia or Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of the Reggio-Emilia region of Italy.
Equidistant from Milan and Bologna, Reggio Emilia is in the north central part of the country in the Po River Valley, a region known for its agricultural prowess. Besides being recognized for producing the world’s best balsamic vinegar, the region is also famous for Prosciutto di Parma (the ham of hams) and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Prior to visiting Mr. Cavalli’s attic, I thought all wine vinegar was created equal. Not so. In fact, the production of balsamic vinegar in Italy is serious business, so much so that the country has a consortium that decides if the prized condiment is worthy of its seal of approval. To guarantee quality, a law was passed in 1986, and in 1987, a Ministerial Decree was announced so that the centuries-old methods employed for crafting this beloved vinegar would be preserved and regulated.
Those wishing to commercially bottle vinegar must submit it to a tasting commission whose members are registered master tasters in one of Italy’s two recognized consortiums; consorzio balsamico tradizionale of Reggio Emilia and consorzio balsamico tradizionale of Modena. Participating in a blind taste test, the tasters rate the balsamic vinegar for certain characteristics, including taste, aroma and visual appeal. If the vinegar scores enough points, it passes, receiving a red, silver or gold sticker of quality and also the Denomination of Controlled Origin (D.O.C.) title.
The law, the decree and the nod from the consortium notwithstanding, Mr. Cavalli told me that producers are respectful of the time-honored tradition of making balsamic vinegar the way it has been produced for more than 1,000 years. Historians have discovered ancient tomes referencing the gastronomic potion dating to 1046, the year Holy Roman Emperor Henry III traveled from Europe to Rome for a coronation. During his travels, it is believed he procured a bottle of the stuff from Bonifacio, Marquis of Tuscany and father of Countess Matilde di Canossa.
Since that time, kings, emperors and the noble families of Europe have kept a private stock of balsamic vinegar, first enjoying it for its perceived, if not real, medicinal value. In the 1800’s, the vinegar was used to enrich the dowry of noble women that were to be married. Today, the very best balsamic vinegar can fetch upwards of $500 for a very small bottle. Continuing my attic education, Giovanni explained how his balsamic vinegar is made.
First, sun ripened Trebbiano, Spergola and Occhio di Gatta grapes, grapes specifically grown within the province, are harvested. Careful not to subject them to the stress of mechanical pressing, they are hand-crushed, producing a liquid called must. The must is cooked down for upwards of 30 hours to sterilize it, prevent fermentation, evaporate some of the moisture content, and to concentrate the sugar.
Once cooled, the must is transferred to five or six wood barrels, each one smaller than the first, and the aging process begins. Yeast is added to start the alcoholic fermentation process, which is followed by acetic oxidation (the evaporation of oxygen) and the eventual transformation into vinegar. In a year’s time, 10 to 25 percent of the vinegar will evaporate and the barrels have to be filled, although no barrel is ever filled completely so further evaporation and condensation can occur.
Starting with the smallest barrel, all the barrels are topped off with vinegar from the preceding barrel, continuing on to the largest barrel. Finally, each barrel receives and infusion of new must, and the process continues annually. In accordance with the guidelines established by the consortiums, balsamic tradizionale can’t be sold in Italy as such unless it is at least 12 years old. However, because there are no such regulations in the U.S., it’s easy to be tricked.
The first giveaway is the price. For a 100 milliliter bottle of D.O.C. Red Seal produced by Cavalli cav. Ferdinando, expect to pay between $60 and $125 ($100 or more for Silver Seal, north of $200 for Gold Seal). A knock-off or look a like brand at your local supermarket costs around $10, $18 and $26 respectively. Another red flag is consistency. Balsamico traditionale is thick, yet silky, like maple syrup, while most mass-produced balsamic vinegar has the consistency of water.
Lastly, before it is corked, a representative of the consortium who seals the bottles with a wax crest supervises balsamico traditionale. The imposter often has a screw off cap. After examining each barrel, Mr. Cavalli reached for a small bottle whose contents contained 12-year-old balsamic vinegar. Nursing half a dozen drops onto a small spoon, he invited me to taste it.
I drizzled the heavenly liquid on my tongue and, though I can hardly consider myself a connoisseur, the harmony of sweet and sour was undeniable. It was rich, buttery and absent the acid bite of faux balsamic vinegar. Mr. Cavalli shared 18-, 25- and 30-year-old samples with me, and each was more delightful than its predecessor. With the attic tour complete, I joined Giovanni in his shop, walking out with a half dozen bottles of balsamico traditionale.
Returning to my rented villa to join my wife, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. We spent the rest of our vacation searching out restaurants that served the delicious liquid. Since returning from the Reggio Emilia region, we break out the coveted elixir on special occasions, giving a nod to craftsman like Giovanni Cavalli who keeps the tradition alive.
Kim D. McHugh is a Lowell Thomas award-winning writer and member of the Golf Writers Association of America. His articles have appeared in SKI, RockyMountainGolf.com, Hemispheres, Colorado Expression, Tastes of Italia, Luxury Golf & Travel, Nicklaus and Colorado AvidGolfer.