They call it black gold: a 100 ml bottle of a 25-year vintage can sell for over 100 €, yet most of the world’s supply is an imitation. We’re talking about modena balsamico, the carefully aged, syrupy vinegar that adds a deep mellowness and tart sparkle to everything from roasted meat, risotto to fresh-picked strawberries. On a recent trip to Modena—the only region with the rights to the coveted Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena label—I had the pleasure of visiting Acetaia DiGiorgio , a small producer of the most sought-after vinegar.
Giovanna Cati – Barbieri and her husband Giorgio greeted us at the heavy, iron gate that opens onto their family estate. A former German teacher and volleyball coach, the couple are successors to a long line of passionate artisans: the cheerful pink façade of their beautiful house on the outskirts of Modena was once home to the 14 Barbieri siblings. Today, together with their daughter Carlotta, Giovanna and Giorgio are carrying on the Barbieri family’s 120-year-old tradition of crafting balsamic vinegar.
The origins of vinegar are as opaque as the liquid itself. While vinegar dates at least to the Roman Empire, the term “balsamico” first appeared much later, in a recipe found in the secret cellars of the Estes family, the Modenese nobles credited with developing the first Modena balsamico in the 16th century. The story goes that a forgotten barrel of cooked grapes left a deliciously sweet vinegar residue and the first balsamico was born. The vinegar’s pungent odour and robust flavour were said to have curative properties, and even today the Modenese swear by it for soothing an upset stomach.
In the 19th century, Francesco Aggazzotti, a native of the Modena region and a passionate expert on balsamic vinegar, helped define the accepted method for making Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, which would later inform the European Denomination of Protected Origin (D.O.P.) legislation in 2000. Today there are only 64 certified producers of Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena D.O.P. and the majority of their yearly production—about 94,000 bottles—is exported.
To qualify for the D.O.P. seal of quality, vinegar must be made within the Modena or Reggio Emilia region using grapes from Emilia-Romagna and processed according to strict specifications. Barbieri presses Trebbiano grapes grown in the region to produce a juice, or “must,” which is filtered and then gently cooked over an open flame for up to 30 hours to reduce the liquid to one half or a third concentration. The must is inoculated with yeast and then the fermentation and ageing responsible for Modena balsamico’s unique flavour can begin.
The must is aged in a series of barrels of descending sizes called a batteria. Different woods are used for the unique flavours they lend to the vinegar, but oak, chestnut, mulberry, cherry, ash, and juniper are the traditional choices. Each year, the must is transferred to a smaller barrel and the larger barrels are topped up with fresh must. As the liquid evaporates, the flavours concentrate and deepen and after 15 to 25 years (but never less than 12), the must is on its way to becoming authentic Modena balsamico.
I was surprised to discover an attic instead of some kind of a factory under the Barbieri roof. Balsamic vinegar is a result of fermentation, so seasonal fluctuations in temperature are essential to developing the rich, layered flavour and luscious texture that characterize the best varieties. The ageing barrels are kept in the attic, where they can absorb the changes around them under the watchful eyes of Giovanna and Giorgio. And because true balsamic vinegar takes time and patience to get right, small batches are the only way to guarantee an exceptional product.
Like all producers of authentic balsamic vinegar, Giovanna and Giorgio don’t bottle their product. When the vinegar reaches the smallest barrel, it is sent for tasting by the Consorzio Produttori Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. A panel of 5 judges evaluates whether the vinegar is worthy to be the Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena D.O.P. (for vinegars aged a minimum of 12 years) or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena Extra Vecchio D.O.P. (for vinegars aged a minimum of 25 years). The vinegar is then bottled in a 100ml regulation flask designed by race car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro and topped with a white cap, or a gold cap to denote Extra Vecchio vinegar.
After learning about the history and process of making Modena balsamico, we were treated to a tasting. True balsamic vinegar is nothing like what you find in the supermarket; it’s thick as honey and deeply flavoured. A little goes long way. Even the youngest vinegar was incredibly rich, with a mellow sweetness. At 25 or even 40 years old, the special reserve vinegars had lost much of the acidity of the younger vinegars and were stickier and fruitier. The barrels left their signature as well: juniper wood gives a resinous, citrus tingle while cherry imparts a more voluptuous complexity. The Carlotta 1986 Extra Vecchio was inspired by the birth of Giovanna and Giorgio’s daughter and has a bold flavour that comes from ageing in a succession of oak, cherry, ash and chestnut wood barrels…