Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PDO): a vinegar so precious it was, and still is, given as gifts to popes and kings and queens; so rare, it is drizzled, not poured; and so delicious, it is used to enhance everything from ice cream to fresh fruits to filet mignon.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PDO
Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, Italy is so delicious and versatile that the precious liquid is drizzled—not poured—onto everything from steak to salads to cheese to fresh fruit to ice cream. It is also sipped as a digestif after a grand meal. And the vinegar is so venerated by the families that produce it that a series of vinegar barrels, called a “batteria,” is created to commemorate the birth of a child (especially a girl), the child being presented with her or his aged vinegar as a wedding gift. Such was the case when Ada Cavallini from Castelvetro married Bernardo Soli of Vignola on June 5, 1909, bringing along her dowry of coveted balsamic vinegar. And it is that cache, now six generations old, that serves as the foundational barrels for what is regarded as one of Modena’s most esteemed vinegars: Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP of the Biancardi family of Antica Acetaia Villa Bianca. Only the cooked must of grapes grown at Villa Bianca is used in this vinegar. And once the aging process begins, each barrel is personally monitored by the discerning eyes of a family for which vinegar is not only a livelihood, but a way of life.
Until the 1980s, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena was scarcely known outside Italy. And even within Italy, it was regarded as a “cottage industry” product, made in the attics of family homes and used only on special occasions or presented as gifts to special friends. For the most part, the “black gold” was not widely available as a commercial product.
The Modenese tradition of making vinegar derives from the even more ancient custom of cooking grape must in lidless pots in order to reduce the juice to a sweet, dense substance called “saba,” which was used by the ancient Romans as an overall sweetener, the way honey is used. Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, the 1st -century scientist of agriculture, reports in his 12-volume treatise, Res rustica, that in northern areas of the Italian peninsula, known today as Modena and Reggio Emilia, cooked grape must tended to naturally acquire an acidic taste. (Today, it is known that the reason for that natural phenomenon is the existence in the region of naturally occurring bacteria that convert alcohol into acetic acid). But the earliest known written reference to what is believed to be Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena occurs in 1046, when Holy Roman Emperor Henry III, on the occasion of a journey across the plain of the river Po, declares his “yearning to enjoy that perfect vinegar.” By 1228, during the time of Marquis Obizzo II, the House of Este was already preserving barrels of the vinegar. And as evidenced in a treatise by Modenese scholar Ludovico Antonio Moratori, the vinegar, in its early history, was regarded as an elixir, prescribed even as a remedy for the plague. The Italian word “balsamico” derives from the Greek word “balsama,” which means “medicine.” (However, the adjective “balsamic” was first used to describe vinegar in 1747). By 1598, when the seat of the House of Este moved from Ferrara to Modena, the historical record is replete with references to the vinegar and the Este practice of giving it as gifts to special friends and visiting dignitaries. And by the 1700s, the vinegar was known in many of the noble houses of Europe. The earliest extant formula for producing aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena, however, is that of Modenese lawyer and landowner Antonio Maria Aggazzotti (1811 – 1890 ), who, in a letter to a Dr. Pio Fabriani dated March 2, 1862, provides details on the vinegar’s production. And it is that letter, preserved in the archives of the Cavazzoni Pederzini family of Modena, that serves as the foundation for the present-day DOP production rules for Aceto Balsamico Tradiozionale di Modena DOP. Just over a hundred years later, in 1967, La Consorteria dell’ Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale (www.museodelbalsamicotradizionale.org ) was established in Spilamberto, in the Province of Modena. And each year since then, the Consorteria hosts the Palio di San Giovanni, a contest to select the best Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. (In 2014 there were 1,470 entries, and Mr. Giuseppe Corradini of Formiginie took top honors, winning “The Golden Spoon.” [The competition is also open to non-DOP-certified producers]). And in November of 2002, La Consorteria established the Museo Del Balsamico Tradizionale in Spilamberto.
There are many products sold around the world labeled “Balsamic Vinegar.” Many are simply wine vinegar with coloring and flavoring and, hopefully, are priced accordingly. Some are even labeled “Aceto Balsamico di Modena.” And yet others are called “Condimento Balsamico di Modena,” a term typically applied to vinegars made in the traditional manner but cannot receive the “Traditional” designation perhaps because they were not produced under appropriate supervision, or perhaps because they were not aged for the specified aging periods, or because the product did not pass the regulatory body’s eight-member taste test, for example. Many of those products are excellent in their own right and serve their specific purposes. A gentleman who wishes to marinate fish or meat would be wise to use a basic supermarket-quality “balsamic vinegar” rather than waste his precious “tradizionale” vinegar for such a mundane task. But at the end of the day, the “real McCoy” is the real McCoy for a reason. So the moral of the fable: To avoid having to cry “sour grapes” after unwittingly purchasing a wannabe traditional balsamic vinegar, a gentleman should first know that all balsamic vinegars are not created equal; then he should be sure to purchase a product officially labeled “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP” if what he desires is the absolute best.
The manner is which the vinegar is produced is a metaphor of life itself—the old shaping and influencing the young; the young inspiring the old; each generation charged with the responsibility of surpassing the one that preceded it…. To experience the traditional vinegar is to immediately sense that it must have been years in the making and is the result of generation after generation of passed-down production secrets. And to see the manner in which the stewards of the product lovingly and meticulously carry out their duties is to know that the vinegar binds the generations of a family, forefather to scion, like few other things in life can. The product is so superior in every way that a gentleman need not have the elusive gift commonly referred to as “good taste” in order to distinguish this luxurious vinegar from its lesser counterparts, for to taste it—even with an untrained tongue—is to know immediately that Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP is in a class by itself.
[ A DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta/Protected Designation of Origin) classification may be obtained only after a group of producers from an area or province or region, for example—typically organized as a consortium—comes together and agrees upon production and quality standards, then selects an independent certification entity to ensure compliance with those standards. The producers then forward their classification request to the designated Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, which, after review and preliminary approval, forwards the request to the European Union for final review and status designation. Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena received its DOP classification on April 17, 2000. ]
For a vinegar to be labeled “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP,” it must adhere to the strict standards established by one of the two consortia (Consorzio Pruduttori Antiche Acetaie and Consorzio Tutela Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena) and an independent regulatory body. The vinegar’s only ingredient is cooked grape juice, called “must.” And only certain grape varieties grown and harvested under specified conditions in the Province of Modena can be utilized. The white trebbiano grape and the red lambrusco grape are amongst the most popularly used. But spergola and berzemino, for example, are also used. The grapes are harvested in late September or early October, when they are fully ripe and their sugar content is high. Immediately after being soft-pressed, the unfiltered must is slow-cooked in lidless vats over direct heat at a temperature of between 80 and 100 degrees Celsius (176 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit). The must is never rapid-boiled; instead, it is slowly simmered, with special care taken to ensure that the sugars do not crystallize since crystallization would impart a “burnt” flavor to the vinegar. The four primary reasons for cooking the must are to reduce its water content; to increase its sugar concentration (28-33%); to kill the natural yeast, which would otherwise convert sugar into alcohol; and to achieve an amber color in the cooked must, which will figure significantly in the achieving of the molasses-black color of the vinegar years later. Typically, the volume of must is reduced by 25% during the cooking process.
Once the must is cooked to the desired consistency, it is left to cool. Thereafter, the cooled must is transferred to a ceramic demijohn or a stainless steel tank situated in a cool, dry place, where the must is allowed to “settle” for several months, allowing for natural sedimentation to occur. While settling, the must is covered to minimize any subsequent fermentation (which would quickly convert sugars into alcohol). Then in the winter, typically around February or March, the desired portion of the settled must is transferred to wooden barrels. And it is in the wooden barrels that the must begins its first phase in the long aging process. And it is the unique aging process that makes Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena (DOP) one of the great gastronomical luxuries of the world.
Balsamic vinegar is aged in series of wood barrels of descending volume, the largest usually of 75 or 80 liters, and the smallest of 10 liters. Typically, barrels are made of oak (harmonizes the various flavors, imparts a pleasant aroma, and is resistant to the ravages of time), chestnut (very important for coloration and acidic development), cherry (imparts sweetness and a reddish color), mulberry, ash, juniper (contribute a spicy flavor and aroma), and combinations thereof. Each type of wood imbues the vinegar with unique qualities, adding flavor, color, bouquet, and complexity to the final product.
Unlike wine, which is aged in temperature-consistent cellars, vinegar is aged in a vinegar attic, called an “acetaia,” subject to extreme heat in the summer and extreme cold in the winter. And those temperature fluctuations figure significantly in the maturation of vinegar. The vinegar “works” in the warm months and “rests” in the cool months. During the warm months, two things occur: The sweet, cooked grape must gradually transforms into a sweet-sour vinegar; meanwhile, the heat in the attic causes a portion of the contents of each barrel to evaporate, the remaining liquid condensing in the process. (Just as naturally occurring yeast transforms sugar into alcohol, naturally occurring aerobic bacteria, acetobacter, and the single-celled fungus, saccharomycete, symbiotically transform alcohol into acetic acid—the saccharomycetes transforming some of the sugars in the cooked must into alcohol, and the acetobacters converting that alcohol into acetic acid, the souring element of vinegar. Each year, depending on the ambient temperature in the attic, approximately 15 percent of the volume of a barrel evaporates, leaving a more concentrated product. That evaporated portion is poetically referred to by the ever-romantic Italians as the “angels’ share”). In the cool months, the dormant microbes in the vinegar settle to the bottom of the vinegar.
Vinegar barrels are positioned on their sides, each with a rectangular-shaped bunghole facing upwards. The bunghole, which is never plugged, allows for evaporation of the vinegar; the inspection of the vinegar; and for the evaporated volume to be replenished. A piece of white linen or gauze measuring about one square foot is generally used to cover the bunghole so as to prevent contamination of the contents of the barrel—but allow for natural evaporation—throughout the aging process. (At Acetaia Villa Emma, intricate, handmade, white doilies are used. And a scarlet cloth is the fabric of choice at Acetaia Ferrari Amorotti). In the olden days, stones collected from the local river were used to cover the bungholes; and, interestingly, the acid of the vinegar would, over the decades, slowly corrode the stones, the eroded fragments falling into the vinegar and allegedly contributing to the desired overall sweet-sour equilibrium of a good vinegar.
Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena is categorized as DOP or Extra Vecchio DOP, the former aged for at least 12 years (and unofficially referred to as “Affinato”), and the latter aged for at least 25 years. A battery comprised of a minimum of five barrels is used to age the vinegar, and the barrels must be made of at least three different types of wood. But some producers, in order to create a superior product with tantalizing complexities, use approximately 10 barrels in the aging of DOP and about 20 barrels in the aging of “Extra Vecchio” (Italian for “extra old”) DOP. A battery containing many barrels may therefore have more than one barrel made of the same wood.
When a brand new battery of barrels is acquired, the barrels must be “prepped” or “seasoned” before they can be put into the service of aging Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP. First, boiling-hot, salted water is used to fill the new barrels, remaining in the barrels for approximately one week. Thereafter, the salted water is discarded, and the barrels are filled with wine vinegar for up to one year. Thereafter, the wine vinegar is discarded. Only then may the barrels be used for aging the traditional vinegar.
First-time visitors to the classic acetaia—with its vinegar-blackened batteries of barrels dating back several generations; testing equipment that looks more like the instruments of alchemists than of modern food production; mysterious, almost-ritualized processes of “rincalzo,” “travaso,” and “prelievo”; and an atmosphere so sweetened by the smell of aging, condensing vinegar that one may be tempted to open one’s mouth so as to devour the perfumed air—oftentimes want to know how an acetaia is first established. How does a person who does not descend from a family that has been making traditional vinegar from time immemorial join the ranks of this elite fraternity.
One method is thus: When a person decides to establish a brand new batteria, all the newly “prepped” barrels—whether five or ten or twenty, for example—are filled with cooked must. Then after a year, “the angels” having taken their share from each barrel, the evaporated portion of each barrel, beginning with the smallest barrel, is replenished with liquid from the barrel in the batteria that immediately precedes it, the evaporated portion of the largest barrel being replenished with freshly cooked, settled must. That process continues, without one drop of the precious liquid being harvested, for at least 12 years or 25 years, depending on the classification of traditional vinegar desired. Then once the desired aging threshold has been achieved, approximately 10 percent of the aged vinegar from the smallest barrel is harvested each year.
Alternatively, at the inauguration of a brand new battery of barrels, the cooked, settled must is siphoned into the largest (first) barrel, in a process known as “rincalzo,” remaining there to age into vinegar until the following year, at which point a portion of the largest barrel’s contents is used to fill the second, slightly smaller barrel in the battery. To the remaining one-year-old vinegar in the first barrel is added the newly cooked, settled must from the second year’s harvest of grapes, the old vinegar serving to “jump-start” the aging process of the newly added must. In the third year of aging, with the first two barrels of the battery containing aging vinegar, vinegar from the second barrel is used to fill the third, smaller barrel, and vinegar from the first barrel is used to replenish that which has been removed from the second barrel to fill the third. Then the cooked must of the third year’s harvest is used to refill the first barrel. Each year, in the winter, in a process known as “travaso,” each successive barrel in the battery is filled, and each contributing barrel is “topped up” with vinegar from the previous barrel in the series of barrels, the first (largest) barrel always being topped up with the freshly cooked must of the year’s harvest. Eventually, all the barrels in the battery are filled, the smallest and final barrel in the battery containing the greatest percentage of the oldest vinegar. (Technically, since no barrel is entirely depleted of its contents in the travaso process, each barrel in the series contains a portion of the oldest vinegar). And it is from the final, smallest barrel that approximately 10 percent (one liter from a 10-liter barrel) of the aged vinegar is extracted to be bottled for market. The process of extracting the aged vinegar from the final, smallest barrel is known as “prelievo.” After the very first harvest of vinegar from a “newly” established batteria (after 12 years in the case of DOP and 25 years in the case of “Extra Vecchio” DOP), the smallest barrel is then regarded as the “first” barrel since from the first prelievo onward, once the vinegar is extracted from the smallest barrel, it, and every other barrel in the battery, will be topped up with vinegar from the barrel that immediately precedes it in the order of ascending volume, the smallest barrel becoming the “first” to be topped up, and the largest barrel, topped up by the cooked must from the “settling” tank, becoming the “last.” (Barrels are reused for many years—sometimes for centuries. In addition to the active culture, referred to as the “madre” [“mother”], found in the remaining vinegar left in each barrel after some of its contents has been transferred, the walls of the barrels themselves have precious, active, vinegar-making bacteria culture. So when barrels become so old as to be compromised, their outsides are oftentimes reinforced such that the inner surfaces can continue to stimulate the aging of vinegar. When barrels are so old and so saturated that they can no longer effectively contain their vinegar, they are re-clad with a newer barrel: the metal hoops of the old barrel are removed, and the barrel is held together with “corda canapa,” a rope made of the fiber from the hemp plant. [Corda canapa is also used to plug holes in damaged barrels.] The old, compromised barrel is then fit inside a newer, slightly larger barrel—that has already been in the service of aging traditional vinegar—so that any vinegar that escapes the walls of the old barrel will be secured by the newer, intact barrel. Some acetaie are of the opinion that a re-clad barrel, because of its double-thickness, impedes the natural evaporation, and thus, condensation, of the aging vinegar. Acetaie of that mindset, therefore, opt to retire a barrel when it has become too saturated to safeguard its contents).
But even the bottling of this luxury product is a closely regulated process. Once the aged vinegar, after 12 or 25 years, is extracted from the smallest barrel, it is transported to a Consortium, where it is subjected to laboratory testing for acidity and density. If the vinegar passes the Consortium’s test, it is then subjected to a taste-test administered by the independent control board, where five taste-experts judge the product. Finally, if the product passes the taste-test, then—and only then—is the Consortium (not the producer) allowed to bottle the vinegar in the distinctive, rectangular-bottomed, 100ml bottle (the size of a typical perfume bottle), specifically designed for the consortia by Italian automobile designer Giorgetto Guigiaro and in use since 1987. That bottle—and that bottle only—may be used for the bottling of Aceto Balsamic Tradizionale di Modena DOP. The Consortium then caps and seals the bottles (While the color of the DOP cap may vary, sometimes red, sometimes white, for example, the color of the Extra Vecchio DOP cap is always gold), thereafter affixing its certifying labels. The producer then affixes its private label onto the bottle in preparation for market.
Once bottled, no further aging occurs in the vinegar. And if tightly sealed and stored in a cool, dark place, the vinegar endures indefinitely. (DOP vinegars are sold with a knob-headed cork to seal the bottle when not in use, and a cork fitment with a flow-spout for when the vinegar is in active use at the table). What also endures is the flavor of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP: Besides the vinegar’s delightfully lingering after-taste, its flavor seems to imprint the gastronomical DNA such that no other vinegar will ever compare thereafter.
At first glance, except for the joyous aroma that immediately embraces a visitor, an acetaia can appear somber—like a funeral parlor or a cortege of mourners all dressed in black, each wearing a white veil upon her head; or as a family crypt, with neatly lined-up coffins and sarcophagi bearing the names, dates, and remains of long-dead ancestors. But almost simultaneously, an acetaia reveals itself as instead a place full of life—indeed, as a metaphor for life itself—and as a declaration of the power of family, past, present, and future, each informing and defining the other….
It is often said that to truly fall in love with Venice, a gentleman must engage the services of a private gondolier to tour the city’s quiet canals, the guide’s voice echoing down the narrow passageways, off the medieval stone walls, and under the picturesque bridges of “Neptune’s City.” So, too, it is with “black gold”: A gentleman must ascend the stairs then enter an acetaia in order to experience, first-hand, the wonder that is Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena.
One of the perquisites of visiting an acetaia is getting to taste, from different barrels, the delicious liquid in its various stages of maturation. Though the trophy of the Palio di San Giovanni is a golden spoon, traditional vinegar is best tasted from a half-teaspoon-size spoon made of porcelain (A similarly sized plastic spoon is second-best). The distinctive sweet-sour flavor of the vinegar is perhaps closest to what would be the result of mixing tamarind preserve with cider vinegar, cooking the mixture on low heat for about 30 minutes, then, just before serving, stirring in a teaspoon of raspberry preserve. Such is what a person who finds himself at Earth’s end, desperate for traditional vinegar but, alas, could find none, would concoct. But today, grazie a Dio, with online shopping and next-day deliveries, he can order the product from his favorite acetaia and have the authentic vinegar delivered to his door before dinnertime the following day. Another remarkable thing about visiting an acetaia is observing the liquid in the barrel through the square-shaped bunghole: From the motionless, thick, almost-black liquid, one’s image reflects as if looking into a mirror. (Had Narcissus visited an acetaia instead of a river, he would have transformed into a pickle rather than a flower!) And as varied as the families and their individual members in whose honor batterie are established, so are the acetaie themselves different, each one from the other.
One of the grandest acetaie of them all is Acetaia Villa Emma, established by Mirella Leonardi Giacobazzi and situated in the attic of the mid-1800s palazzo of Modena’s esteemed Giacobazzi family. To enter the acetaia, one must don disposable protective coveralls—to safeguard the precious, delicately balanced vinegar from human contamination! Twelve hundred barrels, lined up like sentinels of the past, present, and future, fill the great attic. The acetaia is a veritable museum to traditional balsamic vinegar: tasting- and testing-instruments, period-furniture, old amphorae, seemingly countless awards and commendations, acid-eaten river stones, framed photographs and newspaper articles, and, of course, handmade doilies, decorate the space. Villa Emma (email@example.com) is a delight to the five senses.
One of the most innovative acetaie (to the extent that traditional balsamic vinegar allows for innovation) is Acetaia Del Cristo ( www.acetaiadelcristo.it ). Having the luxury of 2,000 barrels in the active service of producing traditional vinegar, Acetaia Del Cristo has ingeniously created a diversified product line within the confines of the “traditional” and “extra vecchio” classifications. The acetaia produces the classic “traditional” and “extra vecchio,” both of which are aged in batterie consisting of barrels made of different types of woods. But the company has also added a line of “flavored” vinegars that are aged in batterie featuring the final several barrels of one particular wood: oak, chestnut, cherry, mulberry, or juniper. And because most of the aging occurs in one type of wood, the dominant characteristics of the vinegar are particular to that wood. Unlike other acetaie of aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena, then, which offer only two categories vinegar, Acetaia Del Cristo offers fourteen products: 12-year-old “Tradizionale,” plus five flavor variations; 25-year-old “Extra Vecchio,” along with five flavor variations; the company’s Palio di San Giovanni-winning “Black Diamond Extra Vecchio,” a classic vinegar harvested from barrels containing liquid that has been aging for at least 50 years; and the “granddaddy” of them all, “Della Nonna” (Italian for “from Grandmother”), a classic vinegar taken from the acetaia’s oldest barrel, which dates from 1849. Each year, only 20 to 40 bottles of this most prized vinegar, presented in a hand-painted wooden box, is made available on the market. Three generations of the Barbieri family and their partners, the Bonfatti family, have worked to earn the distinction as Modena’s—and therefore the world’s—largest producer of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP.
Traditional vinegar is one of the cornerstones of Modenese culture. And it is not uncommon for even small producers to create vinegar of the highest quality. To assist those producers with bottling and marketing, the cooperative La Tradizione ( www.acetaialatradizione.com ) was established in 2002. One of the cooperative’s associates is Ms. Loretta Goldoni, the eponymous founder of Acetaia Loretta Goldoni (firstname.lastname@example.org ), situated in the attic of the owner’s home and art studio. In 1940, Ms. Goldoni’s father established a batteria in his home primarily for domestic consumption. And it is those now-seventy-five-year-old barrels that serve as the backbone for his daughter’s acetaia. Around 1985, additional batteries were inaugurated. And today the acetaia boasts a total of eleven batteries. Goldoni grows her own grapes and has them pressed and the must cooked at the cooperative’s processing facility. The cooked must is then delivered to her acetaia to begin the long process of creating traditional balsamic vinegar. Goldoni, who holds a degree in art history, began bottling “traditional” and “extra vecchio” through the coop in 2003 and today derives her primary income from her vinegar enterprise.
Another member of the La Tradizione cooperative is Acetaia Ferrari Amorotti (email@example.com ). The oldest batteria at the revered acetaia was once owned by the Duke of Modena and dates from around 1750. That batteria was eventually acquired by Francesco Antonio Maria Aggazzotti, considered by many—on account of his “codification” in 1862 of traditional vinegar production—as the “godfather” of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. The historic batteria was eventually inherited by Elvira Aggazzotti, grandmother of siblings Francesca, Giovanna, and Lorenzo Ferrari Amorotti, present-day owners of Acetaia Ferrari Amorotti. Located in the village of San Venanzio, just outside Maranello on the old, panoramic, Via Giardini, the ducal road built by the Estes to connect the Duchy of Modena to their ducal estates in Garfagnana and the harbor of Massa in Tuscany, the acetaia, known for its long batterie, each consisting of nine or ten barrels, is situated inside the tower portion of a complex of buildings that was once used as an outpost and rest-stop by the Este dukes to refresh the horses of traveling merchants and provide short-term lodging and a place to eat for travelers and pilgrims. The Ferrari Amorotti family acquired the complex and ducal batteria at the end of the 1700s when Napoleon confiscated and then auctioned the ducal estates and the Este’s prized barrels of vinegar in order to finance his military campaigns. The austere-yet-imposing edifice, surrounded by extensive open fields and gentle hills, was built in three phases: The tower, likely constructed for defensive purposes, dates from the 12th century; the living quarters of the building was added in the 14th century; and the Este family added the front portion, which runs along the roadside and today serves as a restaurant, in the 18th century. The entire complex was restored between 2004 and 2005 by Vincenzo Ferrari Amorotti, father of the current owners. Comprised of 170 barrels, the acetaia is in effect a merging of two of Modena’s oldest and foremost balsamic vinegar families: Aggazzotti and Ferrari Amorotti. And as such, the acetaia is one of the region’s most storied and decorated: In 1861, at the National Exhibition in Florence, an Aggazzotti balsamic vinegar won a gold medal; and in 2000 and 2007, Acetaia Ferrari Amorotti won the coveted Palio di San Giovanni, thereafter retiring from active competition.
Antica Acetaia Villa Bianca ( www.acetaiavillabianca.com ) may best be described as “stately.” Stately entrance pillars welcome visitors onto a stately driveway, which leads to a stately, early 17th -century villa. The estate is self-contained: Everything pertaining to the production of the vinegar—from the growing of the grapes to harvesting the “black gold” 25 years later—is done in situ. The heirs-apparent to this stately estate are Emilio and Aurora Biancardi, great-grandchildren of Ada Cavallini Soli, the matriarch whose dowry batteria serves as the foundation of the acetaia’s present-day arsenal of 600 barrels. In 1936 Ada’s husband, agronomist and pharmacist Bernardo Soli, wrote a series of published articles on the production methods of traditional balsamic vinegar, and those articles are still referenced today. But it is said that it is Ada’s daughter, Bice Soli Biancardi, who, by instilling the love and respect for traditional balsamic vinegar in her sons Claudio and Vincenzo, transformed the Biancardi acetaia from a typical Modenese family acetaia for domestic consumption into a commercial enterprise. Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Claudio, in 1963, while enrolled in a course on food chemistry at Modena University, became interested in the efforts to establish standards and parameters for traditional Modenese vinegar. Around that same time, the Department of Agriculture officially recognized balsamic vinegar as a bona-fide Modenese tradition. And it was during Claudio’s tenure (1990 – 2003) at the helm of Consorzio Produtti Aceto Tradizionale di Modena (Consortium of the Producers of Modena’s Traditional Balsamic Vinegar) that the vinegar’s DOP status was secured. So if Francesco Antonio Maria Aggazzotti is the “godfather” of the traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, then it is Claudio Biancardo who is its “big brother.”
At Villa Bianca, visitors take an elevator—not stairs—to arrive at the acetaia. The modern world, however, is left at the elevator’s door, for to enter the acetaia is to come face to face with something ancient and sacred, like a shrine to the god or goddess of vinegar. A long table of oak, flanked by chairs of oak, sits in the center of the room, as if awaiting a holy offering or a meeting for heads of state. And upon that table are the accoutrements of the vinegar trade, each more ancient, peculiar, and interesting than the next. Meanwhile, the air is heavy with the glorious aroma of traditional vinegar. At once acetaia and museum, the experience leaves even the most seasoned visitor uplifted—as if having had a religious revelation. Alas, the inevitable descent to Earth, via the elevator, is almost anticlimactic—but only for a short while, for it is not unlikely that visitors will be treated to a stately Italian meal, hosted by Irene Biancardi, comprised only of ingredients grown and raised at Villa Bianca.
Each year, Modena produces approximately 60,000 bottles of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP and 30,000 bottles of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale “Extra Vecchio” DOP. Like many of the world’s luxuries, DOP vinegar is expensive. But unlike some of the world’s expensive luxuries, the vinegar is worth every penny: As a result of natural evaporation and condensation, 100 liters of cooked grape must yields only one liter—25 years later—of “extra vecchio” traditional vinegar. It is for good reason, then, that a 100ml bottle (3.3 ounces) of the “extra vecchio” DOP typically costs hundreds of dollars, making the product, ounce for ounce, one of the most expensive foods in the world.
[ Traditionally, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP is used sparingly, primarily on special occasions or to enhance very special meals. The typical serving amount is about one teaspoon per person. Outside Italy, DOP is found only in the finest stores or may be purchased online directly from the producers. But for gentlemen in need of good-quality, everyday vinegars—for use in cooking, on salads, or as a base for marinades, for example—and for young gentlemen who simply cannot afford DOP vinegar, Balsamic Vinegar di Modena IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protteta/Protected Geographical Indication) (www.consorziobalsamico.it) is typically available worldwide and is modestly priced. Each year, the Province of Modena produces approximately 90 million liters of balsamic vinegar (aged at least 60 days in wood) and balsamic vinegar “invecchiato” (aged more than three years in wood), 90% of which is exported to over 120 countries worldwide, with 35% of total production going to the United States. Compared to many other vinegars simply labeled as “balsamic vinegar,” Balsamic Vinegar di Modena IGP is a far superior product—in appearance, aroma, flavor, and density. Balsamic Vinegar di Modena IGP is comprised of between 20% and 90% cooked grape must plus wine vinegar. Caramel color, no more than 2% of total volume, may be added. Generally, the higher the percentage of grape must, the higher the quality and price of IGP vinegar. And typically, products with a high percentage of cooked grape must contain no added color. Per labeling laws, ingredients must be listed in the order of their prominence in the product, the most prominent ingredient listed first. An IGP vinegar comprised of 50% or more grape must will list grape must as the first ingredient on the label. A discerning gentleman, when purchasing Balsamic Vinegar di Modena, should insist upon the IGP designation and should be mindful of the relative grape must content of the product. ]