We buy and use quite a lot of balsamic vinegar. We buy the standard vinegar you find on supermarket shelves and use it for salad dressings and for cooking. We’ve always liked the flavour it adds to food and Anna has been cutely calling it “binegar” since she was very small.
So when we were on the Modena leg of our food tour of Italy we jumped at the chance to visit a traditional producer and see how balsamic vinegar is made. We were amazed both by the process and the flavours we encountered.
Location, location, location
Set on an idyllic farm surrounded by 10 hectares of well tended vineyards producing Trebbiano (white grapes) and Lambrusco (red grapes), four generations of the Leonardi family have produced balsamic vinegar here since the middle of the 19th century.
We were greeted by Vitoria, our guide, who proceeded to give us a full guided tour. She started by explaining about how this small geographical region has the ideal climate for balsamic vinegar production, hot summers for growing and maturing the grapes and cold winters that ensure that the vital colonies of bacteria go to sleep.
The grapes, all grown on the farm’s vineyards, are harvested in September and October and pressed very gently and sieved to extract the juice, called mosto.
The mosto is cooked very gently for 2 days, churning all the while to prevent it from burning. The long cooking time is to both reduce the juice by 50%, thus concentrating and intensifying it, and also to stop the fermentation. This is key as, unlike its grape based counter-part wine, they don’t want any alcohol.
Another difference from wine production is that the vinegar is stored above ground rather than in cellars. In fact it is often stored in the roofs of houses to ensure that it benefits from the changes between hot and cold temperatures of summer and winter. Again, unlike wine, the producers want air to get to the vinegar during maturation so the small holes at the top of the barrels are covered with a small square of linen.
On the subject of barrels, the vinegar is matured in different sized barrels which are called a battery. Starting in the largest barrel, the vinegar spends one year in each barrel before half is transferred to a smaller barrel and so on until the desired maturation length is reached when it is time to bottle and sell the product.
A battery can consist of barrels all made from the same wood, in which case the wood type, e.g. oak, is printed on the finished product’s label, or there could be a number of different woods. In this case the order of the woods is prescribed by the master taster to achieve a unique flavour and the final bottles are marked as traditional.
All good things come to those who wait
This is especially the case with balsamic vinegar. Maturation ranges from 5 years to Leonardi’s oldest vinegar which is 150 years old! You have to admire the craftsmanship, patience and history of this process. And this is all maturation in the barrels as, unlike wine again, once bottled the vinegar does not continue to mature.
A lovely fact is that whenever a new member of the Leonardi family is born, a new batch is made especially for them, ensuring that they will always have a vinegar that is the same age as them.
The uses for the vinegar change as the product gets older. Younger vinegars are perfect for salad dressings and cooking where as the older ones are actually drunk in small quantities as an aperitif.
This was borne out by the tasting that is provided as part of the tour. The tasting was in two stages, the first from the barrels in the maturation rooms where Vitoria used a large glass pipette to take some of the vinegar and transfer to spoons and the second in the shop from the finished bottles.
This is where the difference between our regular shop-bought balsamic and that produced and aged by the traditional method really stood out. Even with the younger product, the taste was more full and rounded and whilst it had the acidity you’d expect it was much more balanced. The most amazing was the 100 year old vinegar, which will have travelled through 100 barrels, which was like a cough syrup in its consistency (it gets thicker as it ages) and was actually quite sweet tasting. Unfortunately a bottle of that was well out of our price range!
IGP, DOP and Condiment
There are three classifications of Aceto Balsamico di Modena made by Leonardi.
IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) is geographically protected and whilst it requires specific production techniques and processes these are less strict than those governing DOP. This product is cheaper and is the classification most often found on bottles we can buy at home.
DOP (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta), like IGP, is geographically protected however its process rules are much more strict. In fact the consortium bottle and market the product. This is the most expensive.
Condiment is a version of the product that Leonardi make following the exact same processes as the DOP, in fact it can be from the same barrels, but as they bottle it themselves, thus avoiding the costly overheads of the DOP, is is significantly cheaper. So keep an eye out for condiment on the label when you are buying balsamic!
After all of the tasting we had lunch at the farm which is provided as part of the “Greedy Tour”. Lunch was absolutely amazing comprising of a number of plates of local fresh produce including Parma ham, Parmigiano Reggiano and strawberries drizzled in 30 year old balsamic vinegar and salad which was sprinkled with Perle di Balsamico. These are fantastic pearls are little balls of balsamic vinegar which look a bit like caviar and explode with flavour in the mouth when you eat them.
Our absolute favourite was the mature Parmigiano Reggiano with balsamic and it’s something we have continued to eat at home with the vinegar we purchased from the shop.
If you are in the region and have an interest in how quality food is produced you should pop in and visit Leonardi. They offer different levels of tour to suit your pocket and the beautiful, tranquil setting along with the fascinating processes and of course the opportunity to taste the most amazing vinegars is not to be missed.
Leonardi don’t have their products in Ireland at the moment but we are sold on buying better quality baslamic vinegar from now on so will be campaigning our local delis to get in touch with the lovely people in Magreta di Formigine!
Disclaimer – Thank you to the Emilia-Romagna Tourist Board for providing us with a free tour of Leonardi for the purposes of this review.
This review is, as always, 100% honest and our own opinion.