The balsamic we get from La Vecchia Dispensa is made by the Pelloni and Tintori families. When I visited, Simone Tintori showed me around the acetaia—the space where the balsamic is made. His family has perhaps a dozen sets of balsamic barrels. A set is called a batteria and typically includes five barrels. As Simone explained it to me, each batteria is made by the grandfather when a new daughter is born into the family. The balsamic made in the barrels will become a part of her dowry, but they’ll remain with the family’s collection even after she is married. The dozen batterie in the Tintori family’s collection represent a dozen daughters over the last few generations.
Each batteria bears the name of the daughter who owns them. I saw Antonietta, Guendolina, Roberta. Many of the barrels are decades old. As we walked through the acetaia, Simone points out batterie belonging to his sister, his aunts, his grandmother. On the walls above the barrels were old black and white family photos. “The acetaia is our family pantheon,” Simone poetically explained.
The same barrels made for Simone’s grandmother when she was a toddler are still in use today.
In fact, they’re probably at their best now, having decades of use. When you put vinegar in a wooden barrel, the barrel doesn’t just flavor the vinegar. The vinegar also flavors the barrel. It’s an ongoing virtuous cycle, a vinegar-flavored barrel gives a different, more complex flavor to the vinegar than the brand new barrel did. A well-made barrel can be used for as long as a century before it falls apart.
It’s the barrels that give the balsamic most of its flavor.
To make traditional balsamic, you start with just one ingredient: grape must, the unattractively named fresh-pressed juice of grapes, skins, seeds, and stems. The grape must is cooked and reduced, then it goes straight into barrels. To start the aging process, it’s mixed with a little of last year’s balsamic, called the “mother,” which kicks off the transformation from must to vinegar. As it ages the balsamic will spend time in at least four different barrels or as many as a dozen. The barrels in a batteria are typically made from a variety of different woods including oak, acacia, cherry, juniper, and mulberry. By the time the balsamic is ready to sell, it will have spent time in each barrel in the batteria. Each type of wood contributes a different flavor. Older barrels add complexity and balance.
These days, most of the balsamic on the market doesn’t come from family pantheons.
About fifty years ago, balsamic makers starting producing a variation on their ancient, traditional product. If you see any balsamic for less than $100 a bottle, you can bet it’s this new version of the vinegar, which I’ll call “regular balsamic.”
Regular balsamic isn’t always just made of grape must. It can have up to 80% wine vinegar which is cheaper than grape must but often has a harsher flavor. But perhaps the biggest difference is that unlike the traditional balsamics which age for at least a dozen years before they’re allowed to be sold, regular balsamic can be sold after just two months. That’s what happens with the thin, sweet, bland vinegar you find in most grocery stores today.
When choosing a balsamic, it’s always good to taste—if you can. When that’s not an option, check the ingredient list. If wine vinegar is listed first the flavor will be weak, and you’re likely to see caramel coloring added as well—too much wine vinegar dilutes the balsamic from the dark liquid we expect and caramel coloring is added to hide that. At Vecchia Dispensa, they use 70% grape must as the base of their balsamics and they never add any caramel coloring. Vecchia Dispensa ages in good wooden barrels for years, and you can taste the complexity and balance they give.
In Italy they used to put the age of the balsamic on the label (and that’s still how we do it at Zingerman’s), but the Italians recently switched over and started listing the density instead. If you find the density listed on the label, as the density gets higher the balsamic will be thicker and sweeter. Our six-year balsamic has a density of 1.18 and a bright, acidic flavor while our thirty-year balsamic has a density of 1.35 and a deeper, more raisiny flavor and a consistency closer to molasses.