John Evelyn 'Acetaria', 1699Vinegar. To every Gallon of Spring Water let there be allowed three Pounds of Malaga-Raisins: Put them in an Earthen Jarr, and place them where they may have the hottest Sun, from May till Michaelmas: Then pressing them well, Tun the Liquor up in a very strong Iron-Hooped Vessel to prevent its bursting. It will appear very thick and muddy when newly press'd, but will refine in the Vessel, and be as clear as Wine. Thus let it remain untouched for three Months, before it be drawn off, and it will prove Excellent Vinegar.Below - notes from Rosemary Roche IWFS February 1991 and Luciana C Lynch Decanter June 1989
In 1046 it is recorded that Marchese Bonifacio made a gift of Aceto Balsamico di Modena to the Emperor Henry III. In 1508 Lucrezia Borgia used the vinegar as a special remedy when her first son, Alfonao d'Este, Duke of Modena, was born. In the nineteenth century Rossini refers to the refreshing and digestive qualities of the vinegar in a letter to a friend. In 1854 Duke Francesco V di Modena sent some as a wedding present to Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria and Elizabeth (Sissi).
Balamic vinegar was usually only made by small family producers so quality, aroma and character could vary considerably. Today there are two types of balsamic vinegar:
- Traditional Can take up to 26-30 years to make top vinegar. It must be about 12 years old to qualify for the name 'riserva'; 25 years for 'extra vecchio'. Some vinegars can age up to 70 years.
- Commercial This is made using a more rapid industrial process in around two weeks. Can be a blend of old and young vinegar including red wine vinegar, can be enriched by caramel to darken and sweeten the blend. If aged in a solera system, the minimum is 3 years ageing, but most commercial producers prefer 8 years.
Cooking the Must
At the first sign of fermentation, the must is removed from the vats, filtered and poured into large boilers where it is brought to a very slow boil and allowed to simmer gently at never more than 60C until the desired concentration has been reached. This is usually achieved after evaporation between 30-70%. Once the must has been removed from the boiler it is cooled and stored in demi-johns for a few months when it will throw a sediment. At the same time it is injected with the bacteria of a mother-vinegar forcing the alcoholic and acetic fermentations to occur simultaneously. After another filtration the vinegar is transferred into casks (vasello in Modenese vs botticella in Italian). 70 litres of must will give on average of 3 litres of mature balsamico. Around 10% is lost each year.
Rincalzo - topping up
This operation is called rincalzo or topping-up and is either carried out immediately or delayed until the following spring. The choice is made by the producer, often according to family tradition. Rincalzo is a very important step because it is at this stage that the aged vinegar is filtered off and bottled and the remaining casks are topped up. The mature vinegar is taken from the mulberry barrel. The mulberry barrel is topped up with vinegar from the ash wood barrel, this is topped up with vinegar from the cherry wood barrel, this is topped up with the vinegar from the chestnut barel and the chestnut barrel is topped up with the youngest vinegar from the slovenian oak barrel. The amount of time spent in each barrel varies from producer to producer.
There are usually five or six barrels in each set with different holding capacities and made from different woods. The largest barrel is usually made of Slavonian oak and contains 60 litres. The second is a 50 litre chestnut barrel. The third is made of cherry wood with a capacity of 40 litres, the fourth is a 30 litre barrel of ash. The fifth barrel containing twenty barrels of mulberry wood. Sometimes there is also a 10l barrel. Sometimes juniper wood is used but never more than 1% as the flavour is regarded as too strong. It is in the barrel of mulberry wood that the vinegar mellows and acquires its distinctive character. Mulberry wood is most often preferred for this vital ageing barrel not only because of its ability to mellow the vinegar, but also because it is relatively porous and consequently creates a higher rate of evaporation thus giving a denser, richer and more concentrated vinegar. A set of barrels is called an 'acetaia'. New barrels are built around the old barrels as the wood disentegrates into the vinegar with time! The barrels are kept slightly above floor level on racks in the loft under the roof beams, allowing the barrels to be exposed to the variations in seasonal temperatures. When the vinegar is ready it is dark brown in colour with a dense almost syrupy consistency. Minimum acidity in the final product is 6% - can go up to 9% but there is so much sugar the final product should be perfectly balanced.