The simplest explanation of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale (hereafter mostly referred to as ABT) is balsamic vinegar….. but not just any kind you’d find on the shelves of your grocery store. In fact, much like Itay’s DOC wine, it has it’s own consortium with strict guidelines and tasting to insure superb quality. The end result is a thick, syrupy vinegar that is both sweet and sour with a palate pleasing, velvety sensation – an experience all to it’s own.
About a year and a half ago, me, my husband and daughter took a trip to the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. This is the region famous for Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano Reggiano and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. WOW, talk about having something to boast about – three of the greatest gifts a foodie could ask for from this country all in one region! We spent several days in Emilia-Romagna and toured all three productions but were most inspired by the production of ABT and in fact, ended up visiting several places that produce this extraordinary elixir.
ABT is only produced in two towns in the whole wide world. To me, that is utterly mind-boggling! But I guess when you consider the production process and that fact that it isn’t, what most would say, a lucrative business, it would make sense. And it makes even more sense, this syrupy potion comes from Italy because the beautiful people of Italy have done an outstanding job of upholding old-world tradition.
Reggio Emilia and Modena are the two towns that produce ABT and each have their own consortium with their own specific requirements, but both fall under the denomination of protected origin or DOP. Ask anyone from Modena, and they’ll say they produce the best ABT but ask anyone from Reggio Emilia, and they’ll assure you they produce the best. To me, it’s a toss up, but I tend to agree with Reggio Emilia.
ABT is made from the must of a white grape called, Trebbiano (a grape also prominent in Tuscany) and aged in wooden barrels. Often, the barrels are old wine barrels that are no good for producing wine but flavorful for producing vinegar. The origin of the wood can vary – oak, cherry, chestnut, acacia, etc. Anywhere from 5-7 barrels are used varying in size from large to small. Each barrel has a small, cloth covered hole on top to access the product. The production starts by filling the barrels with the must where it remains for a year. During that time, approximately 10% of the vinegar is lost to evaporation. After one year, the smallest barrel gets topped off with vinegar from the next size up, and that barrel gets topped off with vinegar from the next size up and so on until the largest barrel is reached and gets topped off with the new production. When another year passes, the same topping off occurs again. This happens for a minimum of 12, yes….count them, TWELVE years! After 12 years, a few liters of vinegar can be extracted from the smallest barrel and sent to the consortium for tasting and approval. Once the vinegar has met all the requirements, the consortium numbers, records and brands it. Then, and only then, can the Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale be sold.
In Modena, ABT has two levels of quality – a cream colored cap indicates 12 or more years of aging and a gold colored cap in addition to the wording “extravecchio” (extra mature) indicates 25 or more years. Both are individually numbered and sold in a bottle specified by the consortium. In Reggio Emilia, ABT has three levels of quality – a red label for 12 or more years of aging, a silver label for 20 or more years, and a gold label in addition to the wording of “extravecchio” for 25 or more years. These are also individually numbered and sold in a uniform bottle specified by the consortium along with a wax seal and “AB” (aceto balsamico) on the label. Generally, ABT is not aged more than 30 years.
The prices of the different levels of quality range considerably. From Reggio Emilia, we purchased a silver label ABT for about 40 euro ($52) and a gold label one for about 50 euro ($65). From Modena, we stumbled on a bottle that was 56 years old – according to my calculations, the beginning of it’s production occurred about the time television was being introduced into the homes of Americans! That one was a splurge at 150 euro ($195).
Of course with something this prized, the suggested consumption is to show it off as much as possible. We often just serve ours on a small spoon as an aperitif to our guests. It is also very good drizzled over Parmigiano Reggiano, a fresh salad, risotto or a good steak. For a unique twist, drizzle it over strawberries or ice cream. No matter how it is consumed, I bet the experience will seem like you’ve just plunged into the best condiment on the planet! If you’d like to splurge on this delicacy, click on this: Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale