Balsamic vinegar seems ubiquitous – until you realize that much of what’s found on grocery shelves isn’t the original. The DOP-certified stuff comes in a 100-milliliter container designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro – famous for his work with Ferrari – in 1988, when the consortium systemized the rules for making it. It’s labeled “Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena,” not “Balsamic Vinegar of Modena,” and the sole ingredient is grape juice. (Nontraditional versions blend grape juice with various wine vinegars.) To be certified, along with the region’s only other DOP-certified vinegar, from Reggio Emilia, it must be made using the original method, unchanged for centuries. Visitors can see this process in play in barrels dating from 1512 that Davide Lonardi still uses at Villa San Donnino in Modena, 45 minutes northwest of Bologna.
Lonardi, one of about 125 local producers, offers travelers the chance to peer into the attic of his 1911 villa and wander among the acres of grapevines in front before they stop in the shop to taste his vinegar – alone, over cheese, or, surprisingly, on ice cream. Like Culatello di Zibello, traditional balsamic is made without climate control; seasonal temperature changes contribute to the product’s flavor. Under one of Villa San Donnino’s sixteenth-century barrels, a ceramic bowl catches drips falling through the cracks of the aging wood.
Things are a bit sleeker – impeccably so – eight miles away at Opera 02, a winery, restaurant, farm-stay, and acetaia (balsamic producer). There, few of the barrels are older than the fresh-faced proprietor, 36-year-old Mattia Montanari, even though the production process – boiling down the grape juice, filling the barrels, then moving the aging product from the largest container to the smallest – takes a minimum of 12 years. There’s no dust or dripping vinegar here. A pristine glass wall separates the air-conditioned lobby from the required uncontrolled climate of the vinegar loft, where gleaming lights and uniform batteries of casks give off a “Lamborghini of vinegars” impression.
The vinegars of both acetaie have a complex, round sweetness without the sharpness and cloying caramel notes of the other versions on U.S. shelves. As different from their counterparts as fine china is from paper plates, they accomplish the same thing, but with infinitely more style and finesse.