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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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.