From Grapes To Balsamic
By law, real Balsamic Vinegar can be made only with wine grapes that grow around
Modena, in the province of Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy. These are chiefly white
Trebbiano and red Lambrusco grapes. As soon as possible after they are picked, the
grapes are pressed. Then the grape mosto is cooked in open-air kettles over direct flame
until it is reduced by 50%.
In the attics of the homes of the Balsamic Vinegar producers, with windows open to the
hot, dry summers and cool, foggy winters, the cooked concentrated mosto is put into small
barrels to age. The barrels are lined up on their sides next to each other, each one
progressively smaller, like Russian nesting dolls. Each barrel has a burned-in brand, and is
registered. The mosto in each barrel absorbs the flavor of the wood. The summer heat
causes the sugar in the mosto to caramelize and darken, and the liquid to reduce, at the
rate of about 10% each year.
Periodically, the liquid is decanted into smaller and smaller barrels made of different kinds
of wood: chestnut, cherry, oak, juniper, mulberry, and more. When the mosto finishes
rotating through all of the barrels, sometimes seven or eight, it is bottled, sealed,
numbered, and finally, labeled “Balsamic Vinegar.” If it has been aged for more than 25
years, it earns the honor of being called “Extra Vecchio” – Very Aged. Extra Vecchio is a
thick, syrupy elixir. The nectar of the gods.
The longer Balsamic Vinegar is aged, the more complex the flavor and the thicker the
consistency. It becomes dark, almost black, like molasses. That is why vinegars aged 12
years or more are not splashed or poured onto food. They are sprinkled lightly.
The Italians call this the battesimo – the baptism, because that is how holy water is
sprinkled on infants to bless them when they are baptized. Balsamic Vinegar is intensely
flavored, so only a little is needed. Food could be swimming in more common vinegars and
still not acquire any taste.
In addition to being richly sweet and sour, Balsamic Vinegar is also drenched in umami,
the fifth taste, also known as savory. Other foods from Emilia Romagna also score high on
the umami scale: olives, prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, wild
mushrooms, and wine. Each one, alone, is spectacular. Together, they are irresistible.
That is why a meal in Modena will often end with a Balsamic Vinegar battesimo on shaved,
aged Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Nectar and ambrosia.