Updated: Dec 13, 2020
Unlike the industrial balsamic vinegar sold at your local supermarket, the Black Gold of Modena is a very precious and special product.
A ancient and prestigious tradition
Around Modena, balsamic vinegar has been made in the same traditional way since the Romans. It was used as a medicine, a way to preserve food and a condiment for a daily use, always on the table together with a good olive oil.
At harvest time, the grape must was mainly used to make wine, but some of it was cooked to concentrate the fruit sugars into a nice, soft and dark syrup with a distinctive caramel taste called Saba. It was less expensive and easier to keep than honey bee.
The traditional balsamic vinegar started to be known in the European courts around 1750, when it was first mentioned as "Aceto del Duca", a very precious product coming from the Ercole D'Este, Duke of Modena. It was a very prestigious and unique present only for special guests and hosts, like the King of France or the Russian Emperor. Very old bottles can be seen at the Balsamic Vinegar Museum in Spilamberto, a very interesting place to understand the story of this precious product.
Only a few rich families were allowed to produce it and the recipes were kept secret. It was already known as "The Black Gold of Modena" and could sometimes be used as a currency. It was a tradition for a rich bride to bring to her new husband a "battery" of balsamic vinegar as a gift. The battery, still used today, is a group of 5 to 7 wood barrels of different size and type used to age the balsamic vinegar.
A complex and long process
Here are the main steps of traditional balsamic vinegar production, that almost did not change for the last centuries:
At harvest time, local Trebbiano (white) and Lambrusco (red) grapes are pressed to extract the juice or grape must
The must is cooked in big cauldrons outdoor over open flame to reduce its volume and concentrate its sugars, giving it a nice brown color and a distinctive caramel flavor
The cooked must is placed in the biggest wood barrel of the battery, where it will naturally ferment to vinegar
The battery is typically made of 5 to 7 wood barrels of different size open on top, each from a different local wood: oak, juniper, mulberry, locust, ash, cherry and chestnut, each giving a special taste and color to the balsamic vinegar
The battery is placed under the roof, so that the balsamic vinegar will be exposed to the heat of the sun and slowly evaporate to concentrate the flavors
Every year at the end of winter, some balsamic vinegar is taken out of the smaller barrel to be bottled and sold. Then the same quantity is taken from the next barrel and added to the last one to complete it, and so on till the biggest barrel
These transfers are called "travasi" in Italian and this how you define the aging period of a traditional balsamic vinegar: after 12 travasi, the product is labelled "affinato" and after 25 travasi, it becomes "extravecchio".
The older the balsamic, the more it costs: it is more concentrated after years of evaporation under the roof and has taken all the flavors from the different wood barrels. Moreover, any traditional balsamic willing to get the quality seal of the Consortium needs to be tasted by a jury of 9 experts before being sold in its special bottle designed by Giugiaro, along with the box and the leaflet explaining the story of the product, its uses and some traditional recipes.