The first known mention of this fine nectar dates back to 1046, in a letter by the German Emperor Henry III.
Made with nothing but grape must* from fruit grown exclusively in the Emilia-Romagna region, in Italy, the traditional recipe yields a dense, precious liquid and should be reserved for the most special of occasions.
The main production steps to keep in mind are cooking, aging and maturation. Their main aspects are described below.
Balsamic vinegar is made with specific grape varieties, Lambrusco and Trebbiano. Traditional requirements demand that producers use grapes naturally containing a minimum level of sugar. They are picked in September, the usual period for the grape harvest.
2. The treading
Once the grapes are picked, it is time to tread them: the fruit is smashed to make the skins burst, without crushing the pips.
3.The grape must
- Filtering: The resulting grape must is filtered to remove all traces of impurities.
- Cooking: The cooking step (or cotta, in the industry jargon) occurs very quickly after the grapes are pressed, to avoid any fermentation. The grape must is cooked slowly, at 85 degrees Celsius for 12 to 24 hours, in uncovered steel kettles on a naked flame. At the end of this process, the volume has reduced by half! It is then cooled and left to decant.
4.Aging and maturation
The vinegar is then stored in a wooden cask until winter. Since temperatures are cooler, it is the ideal time for the vinegar to rest before it is transferred to another smaller cask. The most appropriate space to leave the vinegar to age and refine is the attic, since it is exposed to seasonal temperature variations.
The aging step requires a long decantation in a series of casks made from different varieties of woods. Each of these varieties has its own effect on the vinegar:
- Chestnut, loaded with tannins, enriches its dark colour.
- Cherry mellows its flavour.
- Mulberry accelerates concentration.
- Juniper enhances the flavour with resin notes.
- Sessile oak, normally used to make the smallest casks, imparts the final touch.
The transfer into a smaller cask occurs once a year over a period of at least 12 years for traditional vinegars. The process begins in 75- to 100-litre barrels, while at the end of the maturation period, the casks have a capacity of 10 to 15 litres.
Commercial balsamic vinegars
Many years ago, to meet growing consumer demand and shorten production time, balsamic vinegar makers from Modena decided to change the recipe. They now add wine vinegar to the grape must, diluting the content and consequently lowering the retail price. Several variations of the product were born, giving rise to new culinary uses that the traditional recipe simply did not allow because of its high cost.
These new vinegars may contain between 20 and 90% grape must, combined with 10 to 80% wine vinegar and just a touch of aged grape must. The maturing process is much shorter, lasting between 60 and three years.
Is age really just a number?
In Modena, indicating the age of a balsamic vinegar on the bottle has been forbidden by law since 2011.
Each balsamic vinegar is made following a unique recipe, with blends of grape must and wine vinegar produced and aged in different conditions before being combined. This makes it impossible to determine the age of the final product. With no other point of reference, the producer’s reputation remains the main criteria for consumers. That is why we only work with producers whose reputation is well established.
In order to protect the traditional recipe, the European Union granted balsamic vinegar of Modena a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) designation in July 2009. This quality label is given to some authentic food products with a geographical name linked to their terroir of origin.
To help you choose a vinegar to your liking, we created five categories:
White condiments have a delicate taste. Made with concentrated grape must and the same wine vinegars as other balsamics, they aren’t aged at all. The grape must is prepared in such a way that it remains clear. These products cannot be called balsamic vinegars since their production method and colour do not meet the PGI specifications. That is why they are known as “white condiments.”
The longer aging process and higher proportion of grape must give these balsamic vinegars a taste offering a perfect balance of acidity and sweetness.
Prepared with a selection of the best grape musts and wine vinegars, these balsamics have a density and taste very close to those of traditional products.
These premium balsamic vinegars are prepared exclusively with grape must and make priceless gifts. Aged in casks for at least 12 years, they are covered by a protected designation of origin (PDO). Production is limited and complex, requiring exceptional expertise, which explains their high price: up to 1,000$/litre.
* Must is freshly crushed fruit juice (usually grape juice) that contains the skins, seeds, and stems of the fruit.