Modena Tradizionale barrels
The making of authentic traditional balsamic vinegar is a long and arduous process. An ancient saying in Modena Italy is said like this, ‘Who will first start the vinegar will not taste it, but his children and grandchildren will’. The time honored methods have slightly varied in detail as each family has its own specific and distinct recipe that is guarded fiercely by them. A treatise found dating back to the 1800’s stated the following on the art of making balsamico ‘Beyond these barrels and Trebbiano grapes, all you need is time.’ In reality, the artisan method of making balsamico is much more intricate than that.The process of making balsamic vinegar is similar to that of making a good vintage wine. The production begins with the unfermented juice of local grapes. Traditionally, white Trebbiano grapes are used, but other types like the white Occio du Gatto and Spergola and sometimes the red Berzemino and Lambrusco grapes are also used.
The grapes are harvested when they are most ripe, then crushed and pressed into a juice known as ‘mosto’. If the sugar level in grapes is low, they are stacked in wooden boxes, out in the sun for further ripening. The ‘must’ is cooked over a direct flame in open pots for about 24 to 30 hours until it is reduced to a very sweet concentrate and the reduction is about half or less of its original volume. While simmering, the sugar in the grape caramelizes, thus turning the fluid to a deep amber color. This unfermented ‘mosto cotto’ is cooled and permitted to settle. It is then transferred to ‘batteria’ which consists of a set of progressively smaller wooden barrels. For centuries most balsamico barrels have been stored in family vinegar attics called ‘acetaie.’ These are typically on the top floor of the house. The musto is manipulated and tended for a minimum of 12 years while it goes through the process of fermenting, evaporating, and age. Ageing makes the vinegar complex, intensely sweet and syrupy with aromatic overtones.
There is no precise number of wooden casks for a batteria. A minimum of three barrels are required for the ‘must’ concentrate to acquire its complex characteristics so distinct in balsamic vinegar; to transform, to mature and to age. The barrels are made of different varieties of wood including woods like oak, ask, cherry, chestnut, juniper and mulberry. (Recently, American oak has been imported to add to the wood species of barrels.) The cask capacity ranges from 10 liters to 100 liters. Each wooden barrel imparts its own flavor and color to the must concentrate. The resultant vinegar, thus has a multi-complexion of flavor and aroma. The types of wood used and their positions in the batteria series depends on the estate producers’ personal preferences and their economic viability. The characteristics of each barrel’s wood, such as density, flavor, porosity, and availability are important considerations. All wooden barrels contain big square-shaped bungholes which are covered with cotton cloths for maximum exposure to air and to aid evaporation. Some producers like to use the more aromatic woods for the smaller casks towards the end of the series so that the vinegar has a sharper finishing character. Others prefer neutral woods that let the vinegar mellow.