Travaasa Austin Certified Sommelier, Edward Morgan, embarked on a two-week long journey through Italy, learning the intricacies of Italian winemaking along the way. His adventure thus far has taken him through Piedmont, Veneto and Verona. Here is an excerpt from his incredible Italian saga highlighting his time in the Emilia Romagna region, this time to uncover the secrets of Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale.
In close proximity to the city of Verona surrounding the vastness of northern Italy lays a culture hidden from the eyes of most tourists. Home to gastronomic geographical designations Modena and Parma, Reggio Emilia is an appellation seeped in tradition as well as flavor.
Lars had a surprise for us, or rather a slight change of plans due to the feat of dexterity a ten-day trip of this caliber demands whilst traversing across the continent with seven other souls in tow. We’re not exactly a small party of seemingly innocuous individuals. Everywhere we went wine makers and industry professionals alike wanted to put their best foot forward; or not at all.
Despite a minor adjustment to our regular schedule, death march of luxury already in progress, we happened upon one of the most prominent balsamic producers in the world, Tenute Ferrarini. To the novice this may seem a small treat and just a stop along the way, but I come to find the harmony of a culture lies not just in the wine we drink but also in the entire symphony of the grape itself.
It’s all about the greeting I think here; first impressions are so important. Silvio the national director of Ferrarini met us at the entrance to the vineyard along with his chief winemaker, a young twenty-something who stood confidently, spoke passionately and was eager to show us the way. The introduction reminded me of Piedmont where Andre Delpion was already making a name for himself. In this industry and this culture, they start young and it becomes a life’s work.
Much as I had felt prior to my relationship with wine, I entered the world of balsamic with a sense of déjà vu. Is there really a difference other than the obvious color or consistency? I have learned to temper my tenacity when jumping to such conclusions and as we toured the Ferrarini Estate, I kept my senses acute and my mind open.
Today’s journey took us on a storybook ride dating back to the first century and diverging near the Renaissance. Balsamic, or rather, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale, is first mentioned in 1046 in a small town in the province of Reggio Emilia. When the soon-to-be Holy Roman Emperor, Enrico III of Franconia passed through the village of Canossa on his way to Rome, he was given a small silver bottle of the well-known vinegar of the time, “laudatum acetum.” This has now become the tradition. Small bottles of this vivacious elixir are gifted to the travelers who pass through the only two consortia in the world that produce true traditional balsamic vinegar: Reggio Emilia and its neighboring commune, Modena.
Balsamic starts in much the same way as wine. The grapes are selected and in this case it was Trebiano, also known for making strikingly crisp white table wines. It is harvested, crushed and tanked.
Where the story diverges is in the fermentation process or rather, just before. Balsamic “must,” or the skins, pips, stems and solids that have been crushed with the juice, sits in a tank until just before fermentation begins, thereby eliminating the chance for the sugars to be transformed into alcohol. Acetic acid is then formed through the use of these yeasts and bacteria, which have been added to the barrels and left to ferment the juice. The heating of this liquid then reduces the yeasts and bacteria into acetic acid and then the aging begins sans the transformation of sugar to alcohol.
The majesty of this libation lies in its dormancy, which elevates its structure, aromatics and flavor. True, traditional Balsamic must be aged at least 12 years and will go through a battery of barrels – sometimes as many as 10 and all made from varying types of wood.
Silvio escorted us to an area above the winery reminiscent of an old attic but with ceramic tile floors – much easier to clean should there be an accident. From my studies, it reminded me of the process of aging Madeira. These tight, elevated spaces are where the barrels thrive. They are not climate controlled; the seasons dictate the temperature and the diurnal shifts expand and contract the barrels and liquid to espouse the flavors of the wood they are contained in. The smell of acetic acid hit my nose immediately as I made my way up the narrow staircase. It was pungent but welcoming just the same; my mouth began to water thinking of the sharp cutting flavors of the balsamic I had experienced in the past.
Silvio’s chief winemaker began to explain, in Italian of course while Lars translated, the long arduous process of making true balsamic, showcasing the varying degrees of dormancy and selections of barrel that made not only their balsamic unique but also the world of this tradition one of distinction.
We were obliged to taste balsamic from numerous barrels; however, the most memorable was from a 25-year-old battery that was just about to be bottled. It was rich like molasses, black like sackcloth and, as history would have it, revitalizing to the senses – sharp, mouth-watering while inundating the palate with its tart vibrancy. This was truly the elixir of the ages; something the Romans coined “restorative” or “curative.”
We toured the rest of the battery going over the myriad of barrel types and sizes that give balsamic its diverse flavor profile: from acacia and ash to cherry and chestnut – even juniper and walnut have a hand in the heavenly work. They all vary in size form 50 liters down to barrels small enough to fit around the neck of a Saint Bernard.
We retired to the welcome center of the operation to enjoy fresh parmesan and balsamic with Silvio and his staff; of course, all washed down with their own selection of hand-crafted red, whites and sparkling delights. A few times I caught Silvio admiring his own work, holding a bottle up to the sunlight and reveling in its mastery; nothing wrong with taking pride in your passion.
Despite the life’s work that goes into making traditional balsamic vinegar, its proliferation seems to fall short just outside the borders of this country. Much of the balsamic we come into contact with is a more well known, lesser quality version of the original intention.
It was in this fact that Reggio Emilia became something of an enigma to me: how an area so rich in culture and fiscal opportunity has allowed the world to have its way with its two most well-known products, Lambrusco and Balsamic vinegar. It’s almost as if they allowed these two artisanal entities to pay the forfeit of their prosperity and, more over, their penance has been a played out commercialized version of its original intent. I am reminded of the croissant and how Burger King made it a croissandwich – how time and capitalism distort things.
As the sun began to hang lower in the sky and we departed for the next leg of our journey, I began to ponder the words I read from Carlo Ferretti of the Consorzio of traditional balsamic vinegar producers, “How can we remain indifferent when presented with this uniquely and penetrating elixir unlocking the pleasures of the table with only a few drops?”
This is truly the heart of Reggio and the taste of Emilia.