More than just a salad dressing

Rosemary George on real Balsamic Vinegar produced in Emilia Romagna in Italy. In conversation with Balsamic producer Andrea Bezzececchi

Andrea Bezzececchi is a man with a cause, and he is passionate and articulate about his cause. He is one of the few producers of real balsamic vinegar, balsamic that is labelled tradizionale, in order to distinguish it from a multitude of inferior balsamic vinegars. Andrea was doing his military service back in 1994, when his father died suddenly, leaving him with a hundred small casks of ageing balsamic vinegar. His father had been equally passionate about balsamic but had only produced it for family and friends. After finishing his legal studies, Andrea turned to vinegar and set up the Acetaio San Giacomo in the village of Novellara, near the historic town of Modena.

We are in the region of Emilia Romagna, in northern Italy, in the fertile Po valley. This is a region that is known for its food. The city of Bologna is one of the gastronomic capitals of Italy. Parma ham and Parmigiano cheese, both boasting their own appellation or Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) for a number of years, are produced close by.

The authorities agreed that balsamic vinegar should have some connection with Modena in Emilia Romagna, as the true home of balsamic vinegar, but decided that the product should merely be blended in Modena, and aged for a minimum of 60 days. In other words, a travesty of the real thing. The IGP Aceto Balsamico di Modena was created in 2009. As the raw material can come from anywhere, the principal producers are in Naples and Piedmont in Italy, Britain, Spain and France. The largest producers can turn out 25 million litres per year.

Balsamic vinegar has a long history. There are written references going back to the 11th century. Barrels of balsamic were considered valuable possessions. Until the mid 1960s, it was deemed a medicinal elixir and something very special. Nobody thought of it as an ingredient in a salad dressing. Sadly the reputation and quality of balsamic vinegar has been seriously damaged in recent years, with large industrial producers taking short cuts over the production method, so that it became a blend of wine vinegar and concentrated wine must, with an addition of caramel and colouring matter.

Andrea Bezzececchi in his cellar

True balsamic vinegar depends on what Andrea termed three pillars, namely Origin, Ageing and Method. It must come from the province of Modena or the adjoining province of Reggio Emilia. The production process entails a long ageing, of a minimum 12 years, and sometimes as long as 25 years or even longer.

Andrea has some vineyards of his own and also buys organically farmed grapes from a couple of local farmers. He presses the grapes and chills the juice to avoid fermentation and then cooks the juice slowly, 1000 litres at a time, after which the cooked juice ferments, prompted by the yeast naturally present in the air. As the fermentation slows down, the acetic bacteria take over, creating the acetic acid essential in vinegar. And then the vinegar is aged, first in quite large barrels of French or Slavonic oak and then in much smaller barrels.

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Andrea has an ageing attic rather than a cellar, as it is on the first floor but it is as venerable as any fine wine cellar. He explained that a batteria has a minimum of five barrels, with different woods, oak, cherry, chestnut, mulberry, juniper and acacia. Each wood has its own character and aroma and gives something of itself to the vinegar. The ageing process is like the solera system used in Jerez for fine sherry. Nothing is taken from the batteria for 12 years; the first barrels are simply topped up to replace any evaporation. And after 12 years you can draw off some balsamic from the final barrel in the batteria or solera.

A selection of vinegars produced by
Andrea Bezzececchi

Andrea talked about the essential elements for ageing and quality. You have to consider the number of barrels in a batteria; the more barrels the longer the ageing process. And you have to decide when to start taking out the balsamic. A minimum of 12 years is mandatory. Evaporation is another factor; the more evaporation, the greater the impact of the younger product that you are adding to the first barrel in the battery. Younger balsamic is more pungent, while older balsamic is more restrained, with viscosity developing in time.

The evolution is not constant; there are highs and lows, but the longer the balsamic spends in barrel, the better it is. And the final decision is how much to take from the final barrel. In Reggio Emilia, which includes Andrea’s village, Novellara, you are allowed to withdraw just 15%, whereas in adjoining Modena it is as much as 30%. Andrea has a total of 18,000 litres ageing in a multitude of different sizes of tiny barrels and he bottles a mere 1600 litres a year, in other words less than 1% of his stock.

A tasting panel controls the quality of the traditional balsamic, awarding a quality distinguisher of red, silver or gold, which determines the price of the tiny 100 ml bottle. A 12-year-old red label will retail in Italy at €53; the Silver at €73 and the Gold at €120. Modena and Reggio Emilia use differently shaped bottles, and easy to differentiate. However, it is a stark economic fact that one cannot live on traditional balsamic vinegar alone.

Andrea produces a range of other products, and his best seller is Essenza, which he ages for a minimum of nine months or for as long as seven years. It is rich and smooth, but of course does not have the intensity of the longer-aged traditional balsamic vinegars. It is sad that the authorities have allowed a highly-prized artisanal traditional product to be compromised in this way by mass production. Some of the more expensive balsamic vinegars from Modena are very acceptable, but others do the traditional product a gross disservice.

If you would like a wine comparison for real balsamic vinegar, compare a mature, classed-growth Claret with a cheap Cabernet Sauvignon from the New World, and remember which is the most enjoyable and rewarding!