These are the vinegars about which legends have been woven. Savoring one is an experience to brag about. Buy one for a grand occasion. A golden anniversary. A wedding. A newborn. An election. Made from the must—freshly pressed juice—of Trebbiano grapes. The must is cooked down in open copper kettles to half its original volume, then put into wood to age for a dozen years.
But that's just the beginning. It's taken out and tested by a panel of judges. The qualifiers in Modena are graded gold and white (different than in neighboring Reggio Emilia, where they're graded gold, silver, red). Then they return to the wood for another five, ten, twenty, or a hundred years or more. During the aging process, the vinegar is shifted from one type of wood to the next. Cherry, chestnut, oak and mulberry all leave their imprint on the flavor of the vinegar.
The result is an almost unbelievable concentration of sweet-sour flavor in a dense, intense, brown-black vinegar that hints of berries, grapes, vanilla. There is nothing like it in the world. Only a tiny amount is released each year, in elegant glass flasks. Let loose a few drops on ripe strawberries fresh from the market. An amazing treat you'll always remember.
All traditional balsamics from Modena are bottled in Ferrari designer Giorgio Guigiaro's streamlined, sexy bottle, then gift boxed. They may all look the same, but the vinegar is not. We buy ours from Erika Barbieri, one of the only women balsamic makers. I think her vinegars are consistently fantastic—and the juniper aged version is unique.
Juniper White Label
Something really special. A white label balsamic from Modena that's spent most of its life in juniper, the most expensive, rare and aromatic wood used in balsamic making. Typically, balsamic makers work to balance all of the five or six woods in which they do their aging so no one wood will dominate. But Erika has tweaked tradition by bringing the flavor of the juniper wood to the fore. The results are amazing. Musty, earthy and complex, it's unlike any other balsamic I've tasted. A tiny drop atop fresh cherry tomatoes or ripe, red strawberries is otherworldly.
The first level of Modena's traditional balsamics is so extraordinary, it's a shame to just call it vinegar. Dark, rich, intense.
Rich and priceless, this astounding stuff is wrapped in layers of fantastic flavor like its cousin, Gold Label Balsamic from Reggio Emilia. I'm amazed every time I take a sip. An all-time astounding vinegar experience, one of the most exceptional gifts you'll ever give or receive.
Zingerman's Food Tours is visiting Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna in October, 2013. Join us for a behind-the-scenes insiders' journey to traditional food makers like this.