This is the acetaia, where we keep our barrels containing the liquid that will become traditional balsamic vinegar. Normally, an acetaia is in an attic space, because it provides the ideal conditions for vinegar creation: high temperatures in summer and low temperatures in winter. This change in temperature helps to better acetify the cooked must that we have in these barrels.
Here we have several different sizes of barrel, from small through to large. All of these barrels are part of a batch – each one has an identification number as you can see here. As part of the traditional balsamic vinegar making process, the vinegar is decanted in stages from the largest barrel into the second-largest barrel, and so on all the way down to the smallest barrel. The vinegar in the smallest barrels will eventually be taken to be bottled. The biggest barrels, which you can see here, will be filled with last year’s cooked must.
“Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena – Decanting procedure: the vinegar is moved from one barrel to another”
The decanting procedure is extremely important. It’s the moment in which the vinegar is moved from one barrel to another. It is a delicate operation. From a barrel of this size we will get about one litre of balsamic vinegar, which has been aged for over 25 years.
Let’s start decanting. The first thing we have to do is called extraction. That means we take a small percentage of the content of the barrel, which will later be bottled. In order to extract the liquid, we use this tool, which in our dialect we call an alsaz, or “a taste”. The alsaz enables you to extract the vinegar – either a small amount simply to taste it or more if you want to bottle it.
I’ll now very gently suck the vinegar out of the barrel.
I can now transfer it into a measuring jug and keep going until we have a litre.
As you can see, this product is rather dense. It’s a full bodied, glossy dark brown. It has all the necessary characteristics to be a commercially viable product. We’ve got quite a lot here, but we need to get to about a litre. This litre will be part of the batch we take to the regulatory body to be certified, so that we can then proceed with the bottling. In this demijohn, we have the product of many years of waiting. What we do here is create a blend, a mixture from the different barrels of the same quality, that we can then present to the regulatory body.
“Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena: it’s over 25 years old”
Let’s open the demijohn and put in this drainer, which will help to “clean” the balsamic vinegar before it is bottled. Now let’s pour in our litre. This is a very well aged traditional balsamic vinegar – it’s over 25 years old.
So we have filled our container to take to the regulatory body. After the extraction from the smallest barrel, which has the best vinegar inside, we move on to the decanting procedure. So we take out our alsaz. As you can see, there’s a rod attached to the tube. We need this so the tube doesn’t hit the bottom of the barrel, and to help the tube to float.
First of all, I’ll put the tube in the barrel, and then gently suck the liquid up. Now it’s time to sit down and wait patiently for the liquid to slowly transfer into the container. We’re certainly going to get more than a litre.
Now I’ll put the missing litre into the first barrel to fill it back up. We need to do this slowly and carefully, because the density of this liquid is different to that which is already in the barrel. It will take about a year for the two liquids to amalgamate. That is one reason why we do this decanting process once a year. Now we’ll repeat the same process with the next barrels, trying not to damage anything. These barrels tend to get marked with droplets of vinegar in this process – so they end up being the same colour as the liquid they contain.
Here I’m putting back the excess vinegar we extracted before.
We need to add about 4 or 5, maybe 8 litres of last year’s cooked must to this barrel. Let’s get the things we need in order to add the must to the barrel. We’ll put a tripod here to hold our funnel in place. Now we can go and get last year’s cooked must from the cistern and transfer it into the barrel.
About 8 litres.
Now that we have finished decanting, we need to wait about a year before extracting any more vinegar, and repeating the decanting process. This gives our product time to rest inside the barrels, amalgamate, and reach the right balance between sweetness and acidity, as well as acetifying, of course. That will happen here in the barrel that we have just added our cooked must to.
“The extraction process is very delicate part of the production of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena”
In a year, we will come back and taste the product. If the expert taster – in this case it happens to be me – judges the product to be mature enough, and with the right characteristics, we will repeat the extraction process. Things don’t always develop the way we expect, so it is always crucial to taste the vinegar before extracting it. The maker knows his barrels, and by tasting the product, he or she can decide whether to extract a litre, half a litre, less, or none. The extraction process is a very delicate part of the production of balsamic vinegar, because it is the phase that is most influenced by human judgement.
The majority of our barrels are in this acetaia. We have more than 1,700.
Here we have the mother barrels. These big ones you can see here are some of the oldest barrels we have. They date back to the mid-19th century. Over the summer, these barrels slowly acetify the cooked must that we add every year. Before we add the must, we extract part of the liquid that is already in the barrels. To fill them back up after this extraction, we add the fermented, cooked must that we produced from our grape harvest.
These barrels represent an integral step in the production of our traditional balsamic vinegar because it is inside them that the process of acetifying begins. You could say that they represent the start of our product. The older the barrels are, the better the end product will be 25 years later.
Part of the vinegar that is contained in these barrels is very old. These barrels have one fundamental characteristic. They are usually very large, and they are never emptied by more than half. Why? Because the content that stays inside the barrels – which we call our mother vinegar – is just that, the mother of traditional balsamic vinegar. So we can normally only remove a part of the content of these barrels – half at most. We take it from the top, which contains the clearest liquid. The part underneath, which contains the liquid we call the mother vinegar, remains in the mother barrels. The mother vinegar starts the process of acetifying the cooked must that I add each year. Now let’s go and see where the vinegar that we remove from these barrels goes next.
“Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena: smallest barrel contains the highest possible quality of vinegar”
Here in the attic we have the majority of our batches of barrels. These batches are essentially production chains, and every row you see is a family. I prefer to call them families rather than batches. Why do I call them families? Because each barrel helps the one next to it by donating part of its vinegar. This ensures that the smallest barrel contains the highest possible quality of vinegar. The decanting process is necessary to replace the liquid that these barrels lose through evapotranspiration caused by high temperatures in the summer.
Once we have completed the decanting process for all of these barrels, we then add the vinegar from the mother barrels to the last one – the largest. But we do so only after we have completed the decanting.
This little family of 6 barrels started out as beer barrels. They came here from Germany, and they were full of beer, which my great-grandfather then sold in his tavern. Afterwards, he didn’t throw the barrels away, but he kept them. The idea of keeping things and reusing them has always been a strong part of our farming culture here in the countryside. And so this family of 6 barrels came into being, which I am lucky enough to be able to use today.
I think it is important to remember that there is a strong link between people and these barrels in the production of traditional balsamic vinegar. In fact, in Modena, it is common to start a new family of barrels every time a child is born. It links the product to the family. Every batch you see here is similar, but each has its own differences. Just like people – we might look similar, but everyone has their own story to tell. The barrels are the same. Just like the beer barrels we have been talking about, they have a unique story. And they acetify with their own flavours. The same goes for the other families of barrels you see behind me – even though they are similar, at times they produce very different results. So it is extremely important that we balance the flavours carefully in order to obtain a consistently high quality product.
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