Traditional Italian Balsamic Vinegar and "The Angels’ Share"

It is the time-honored way, passed down from generation to generation. The Italians call it solera or in perpetuum. The ancient process, unlike any other, produces perhaps the most prized condiment on earth- Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale.

The Reggio Emilia and Modena regions have been making the revered liquid since the Middle Ages. These are the only two regions in Italy that can produce real traditional balsamic vinegar. The names “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio” and “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena” are protected by the Donominazione di Origine Protetta and the European Union’s “Protected Designation of Origin”.

Originally a product available only to the Italian upper classes, a cheaper form of balsamic vinegar was developed and became widely available in the late twentieth century. These products can be very high in quality, some even made by the same tradizionale methods, but few rival the carefully crafted and aged acidic wonders of Modena and Reggio Emilia.

The majority of the commercial balsamic sold in supermarkets today is typically made with red wine vinegar, or concentrated grape juice mixed with strong vinegar and laced with caramel and sugar. Additives such as guar gum and corn flour are sometimes used as thickeners. There is no aging involved with the making of this product. But, regardless of how it is produced, all vinegar carrying the name balsamic must be made, to some degree, from grapes.

Traditional balsamic vinegar is usually aged for 12 to 25 years, although there are some stashed in ancient attics that are over 100 years old. The older vintages can cost upwards of $500 for a 100ml (3.38 ounces) bottle!

Reggio Emilia and Modena balsamic are differentiated from one another in several ways. The most apparent difference is the shape of the bottles. Modena uses a squat bulbous bottle while Reggio Emilia uses an inverted tulip shape. The two provinces also use different ways to indicate the age of their respective acetos. Modena tradizionale uses a cream-colored cap for balsamic that is aged for at least 12 years and a golden cap bearing the designation extravecchio indicates that the jam-like juice has aged for 25 years or more. Reggio Emilia aceto tradizionale uses a red label for 12 year; silver for 18 year; and gold for 25 years or more.

One can only imagine the claims of the various Italian families over the years concerning which is the best aceto tradizionale. Suffice it to say, they are all extraordinarily luscious and syrupy, and when tasted for the first time, a life-altering experience.

Tasting Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is much like tasting wine. The difference being that you taste a very small amount of balsamic. Traditionally, this legendary vinegar is tasted by placing a small portion on the back of the hand, in the shallow bowl created by the base of the thumb and the index finger knuckle, and licking heartily. Olive oils are often tasted in this manner as well.

The key to any well-made vinegar, like fine wine, is balance. All vinegars will of course display relatively high acidity, but aceto boasts an acidity that is well-balanced with the fruit-of-the-vine and other flavors.

The artisanal process begins, as it has for centuries, by cooking the grape juice in large copper cauldrons over open flames until it is reduced to around 30-50% of its original volume. What results is called mosto cotto (literally means: cooked grape juice). English-speaking winemakers call it “must”.

The mosto cotto is aged in a series of up to seven barrels of successively smaller sizes. During the aging period a small portion evaporates to the heavens: the angels’ share. The barrels are made of a number of different kinds of wood such as, oak, chestnut, cherry, acacia, mulberry, ash and juniper.

None of the developing aceto is withdrawn until the end of the minimum aging period of 12 years. At the end of the aging period a small proportion is drawn from the smallest barrel and each of the other barrels are then topped up with the contents of the preceding (next largest) one. Freshly cooked must is added to the largest barrel and the “drawing and topping-up” process is repeated in every subsequent year. The relatively small portion taken from the smallest, oldest vintage barrel is the acclaimed Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale!

Unlike wine, the aceto barrels are not closed with a cork, nor are they pampered like their esteemed counterparts. The barrels are generally kept in attics where the windows are left open, exposing the barrels to the cold of winter and heat of summer. The openings of the barrels are covered with a cloth so as to let the contents breath easily and experience the climate as it changes season by season, year by year; only to be disturbed once a year by the in perpetuum process.

The subtleties of the individual family recipes define each aceto in its own special way. The combination of the variety and ripeness of the grapes, and the type and sequence of the wooden barrels make it a timeless art, one that takes years of attention to detail to produce. Some say the precious juice: “tastes like time itself”.

The widely heralded vinegar is incredibly concentrated with the intense flavors of the grapes and hints of the different hand-selected wooden barrels. The grapes are late-harvested so as to reap the sweetest most concentrated fruit.

Trebbiano is the primary grape used for the tradizionale but other varietals such as Lambrusco, Occhio di Gatto, Spergola, and Berzemino are used in smaller portions to round out the cuvee, much like Bordeaux-style wines. The different combinations of these varietals are sometimes family secrets that have been past down through the generations.

At a price equal to some of the finest wines in the world, the use of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is typically limited to very small portions and thus is elevated to true condiment stature. That is, a small amount is all that is necessary to draw out the goodness in everything it touches – much like angels do.

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