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Learn how authentic balsamic vinegar is made in the food valley of Italy

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Why all balsamic vinegars are not the same

On a food tour in Parma  where I’ve just learned that Parmigiano Reggiano is not any old Parmesan, and Parma ham is not just another ham, it came as no surprise to me that there is more to Balsamic Vinegar than meets the eye.  Traditional Modena balsamic vinegar is one of only two officially authorised balsamic vinegars in all of Italy.  The other, produced in Reggio Emilia, are strictly controlled by the PDO protocols, ensuring that the traditional methods of producing this vinegar are always protected.  This is the great thing about being in the food valley of Italy, in Emilia Romagna.  Here, everything is authentic.

 Our visit to the Medici Ermete vineyard is the last stop on our Three Kings Tour, and it’s a lovely way to end the day.

The surrounding vineyards are lush and green and I love seeing the roses, that are there to warn of disease, out in full bloom.

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vineyard at Modena Balsamic Vinegar tour italy
The vineyards and the roses that protect them

Medici Ermete – a traditional Modena balsamic vinegar producer

We are met by the gorgeous Allessandra Medici, the current owner of this farm and business that has been going for five generations.  We are promptly told that they are of no relation to the Medici’s of Florence. (it must be a commonly asked question for those who know their Italian Renaissance history)

Allessandra is quick to point out that the winery is their business and the vinegar her hobby, her passion.  But when you see the effort involved, one might think there’s a little more to it than just a hobby.

We make our way to the building which houses the traditional Modena balsamic vinegar and we immediately know we are in the right place.  There are flies (or as Allessandro called them, mosquitoes) and bees everywhere, such is their attraction to the sticky, sweet vinegar.  Screens on all the windows and doors ensure they don’t become part of the final product!

Antique winemaking equipment outside the modena balsamic vinegar cellar
Antique winemaking equipment outside the vinegar cellar

Making balsamic vinegar the traditional way

The grapes, which must be sourced from grapes grown within the region are pressed either with machines or feet.  They are boiled down for 14-30 hours, with their skin one, into a concentrate called must.

At this stage, it is placed into barrels where the vinegar will start to ferment.  It will spend 1-2 years in these barrels, getting thicker as the transformation of sugar into alcohol occurs.  It also becomes much sweeter during this process.

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Barrels of Modena Balsamic Vinegar
Barrels of Modena Balsamic Vinegar

The ageing process

Later, the traditional Modena balsamic vinegar that has been fermenting in these barrels are relocated into another area for the second stage of the process.  This room is called the acetaia, meaning that it will be warm in Winter and cool in Summer.

Here, the vinegar is placed into a “set” of barrels, containing five barrels of decreasing size.  Various woods can be used to enhance the flavour of the balsamic vinegar.  All wood must come from the local area as well.

The five barrels of decreasing size used for ageing of the Modena Balsamic Vinegar
The five barrels of decreasing size used for ageing of the Modena Balsamic Vinegar

It is interesting to see that the barrels have an opening that is simply covered up with a cloth.  This is very important as it allows evaporation to occur, which further improves the flavour of the balsamic vinegar.

Modena Balsamic Vinegar barrels
Getting down close to the good stuff and smelling the beautiful aromas. Love balsamic vinegar!

Each year, the barrels are refilled due to the loss of vinegar through evaporation.  The process here is quite strict, with the barrels being refilled from the 2nd smallest to the smallest, the middle to the second smallest etc.   The largest barrel is refilled from the “Mother” barrel.

The smallest barrel always contains the most mature balsamic vinegar.  This is where the final product that is bottled comes from.

Barrels in the ageing room Modena Balsamic Vinegar
Barrels in the ageing room

To be considered as a traditional Modena balsamic vinegar, it must stay ageing in the barrels for at least 12 YEARS!  Most traditional Modena balsamic vinegars are 12, 18, 25 years old.

Many of the barrels up here have names of girls on them.  They are purchased by a Father on the birth of their daughter and included as a dowry when the child later marries.

According to Allessandra, after 50 years, the flavour won’t improve.  We also cast our eyes over the very special barrel containing Allessandra’s Grandfathers special reserve.  It was over 100 years old!

Testing

Producers like Medici Ermete must also have their vinegars tested if they wish to receive the PDO accreditation to use the word “Tradizionale” on their product.  The testers will look for attributes including colour, thickness, density, sweetness and smell.

Tasting

I was really looking forward to this tasting as we were told that this would be a product where you could definitely tell the authentic balsamic vinegar from the rest.  After all, if you are going to age something in excess of 12 years, possible 25, then you would want it to be worth the effort.  From a consumers view, you would certainly want to be able to tell the difference as it carries a reasonable price tag.

tasting modena balsamic vinegar
Time for tasting this beautiful balsamic vinegar

The Medici Ermete estate produces three kinds of traditional Modena balsamic vinegar.

Red label – aged from 12 to 20 years     

Silver label – aged from 21-25 years     

Gold label – aged over 25 years           

Each bottle is a blend of the years.

In an act depicting the cost of the product, Allessandra began the tasting by dripping very small amounts of the balsamic vinegars onto plastic spoons for us to try.  As we savoured the sweet, smooth, thick taste sensation, we learned the rules about where to use it.

Thin, cheap, non-traditional balsamic vinegars are what most people would be accustomed to.   Therefore, they would liberally pour vinegars over salads and use in cooking where it all gets burned off.

At €45-€90 a bottle, this delicate liquid should be used sparingly over fruit, ice-cream, fish, parmesan cheese or straight off the spoon after dinner as a digestif.

How to recognise traditional Balsamic Vinegar

  • Every producer in Modena uses the same bottle.  Every producer in Reggio Emilia uses the same bottle.
  • The PDO logo will be used.
  • The words “Tradizionale” will be on the label
  • It will be thick and more difficult to pour.  Non-traditional balsamic vinegars are thin and runny.

All other products carrying the words Balsamic Vinegar will be commercially produced and will contain additives such as caramel flavouring.  They will also be bottled in a range of different bottles, with different labels and will not carry the DOP or PDO logos.  Aged for less than 12 years, they may have the lettering IGP on their bottles.

Allessandra only makes about 1500 bottles a year.  This means she only makes about 15 litres of “ready-to-sell” balsamic each year. With these numbers, and the incredibly lengthy process that must be undertaken, I can now see why she calls this a hobby.

My own taste of Medici Ermete

It seemed like a massive splurge to buy a bottle, especially with our conversion rate, but we definitely wanted some of this for ourselves.  Whilst I am just as happy to use the cheaper version, I can now honestly say I’ve tried both and could easily pick the difference.  There is simply no comparison.

With our silver label traditional Modena balsamic vinegar and a bottle of the Medici Ermete’s Lambrusco in our hands, we bid Allessandra and Amalda our tour guide a fond farewell.

What a great end to a fabulous food tour.  I can’t wait now to eat the fruits of the tour altogether.  Parmigiano Reggiano, Parma ham, and now our special balsamic vinegar.  It seems like complete foodie heaven.

Why traditional Modena Balsamic Vinegar is the best in the world

32 thoughts on “Learn how authentic balsamic vinegar is made in the food valley of Italy”

  1. Wow, I love how the old traditional methods are preserved. There’s so much love in Italian cooking. I love bread dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I’d definitely purchase a bottle of this premium stuff just to try this out. Great pics!

  2. I LOVE balsamic vinegar — but yeah I for sure have been enjoying the cheap kind lol. I can’t imagine how much more I would LOVE the good stuff! 🙂 Very informative post — thank you for sharing this experience1

  3. That must be so delicious! I love balsamic vinegar and I’m sure it must be even better coming right from the source. Good to know about the ways to recognize authentic traditional Balsamic Vinegar.

  4. I had no idea so much went into making balsamic vinegar. I love encountering people who are passionate about crafting something like this. It’s exciting, and makes me want to learn more and, certainly, taste more!

  5. I never knew there was so much to balsamic!! WOW! And really cool photos, love the first one of the green fields especially. I’m actually eating olive oil and balsamic with garlic bread right now…sadly it’s not modena 😉

  6. I’ve tried the real thing and I honestly can never go back to the watery stuff they try to serve in the United States! It seems like the food tour you chose was really the best! I love parmigiano reggiano, parma ham, and real balsamic vinegar. When I lived in Florence, there was a hole-in-the-wall cafe I would eat dinner at every night where I got to create my own salad and I always made sure to put those three ingredients in my bowl. This post really takes me back to the good old days 🙂

  7. Lauren of Postgrad & Postcards

    I LOVE BALSAMIC

    I could drink it with a straw. I’m such a balsamic snob – SO loved this post! You’re quite lucky to get those expensive tastings!

  8. This looks divine. Oh I would really like a Gold Label bottle of traditional Modena balsamic vinegar right now. I doubt I will get it anywhere in India, though. Sigh.

  9. I’ll never look at balsamic vinegar in the same way again! Haha, it’s so interesting to look at things a bit deeper.

  10. Didn’t know about this. My husband would be interested to know about this and to add to our arsenal of things to try out for better eating!

  11. Ahhh, an article about something I LOVE! I have been buying Modena balsamic for years now and when something is so good that it dresses up strawberries, cheese, and even ice cream, you know it’s a pantry staple! I would love to explore Reggio Emilia and eat my way round the town. I suppose I would stand out bringing in my own bag of goodies to sample the vinegars with? lol

  12. It’s my dream to visit a vineyard. I don’t know, I just think they are beautiful. Anyway, it’s interesting to learn how balsamic vinegar is made. I haven’t tasted balsamic vinegar before and I’d love to try it.

  13. Hello,

    I’m visiting Italy in a week with my husband we are real foodies and we would like to do this tour. parmigiano, parma ham and balsamic vinegar.
    I would really appreciate if you can help me with the below:
    Were you in a guided tour or did you do it alone
    Can we reach these factories by train or we should rent a car?
    and do you think we can do these three in one day?

    Thank you for taking the time to answer me.

  14. Hi there Jessy, thanks so much for asking these questions. On the Three Kings tour that I have written about, we did a guided tour. I’m not usually into guided tours but I believe this is necessary for this one. Otherwise you just won’t get a chance to learn about how everything is made etc. The guides are multilingual as well. She spoke in both english and italian on our tour. The kep point of difference for this tour is that you need your own transport. Because the 3 factories are not next to each other, you need to drive to each location. They do it this way in order to keep the costs down (ie if you all went in the same bus it would cost more). The tour guide and driver go first and everyone follows behind them. They keep a very close eye on you so noone will get lost, and also give you the addresses and GPS coorindates for each location, just in case. So, if you are arriving in Parma by train etc and don’t have a car it is recommended that you hire one. You can definitely do these 3 in one day as this is what the tour is. Three Kings is visiting the cheese, parma and vinegar places all on one day. We started at around 9 and finished at 4.30 and this included a lunch stop as well. It’s a tremendous tour, one that I gladly recommend. If you are wanting to book, please use the bright green booking form at the bottom of my articles (found on the cheese, parma, vinegar and tour articles). When you submit through here, Nick from Parma Wine n Food tours will be in touch with all the pricing and details for the day, including checking availability for your preferred dates. If you need any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me. Thanks Kerri

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