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Stop and Smell the Vinegar

Recently I wrote a couple of articles about Ciliegiolo and the Maremma. This was made possible because I had been invited to Grosseto to take part in the Maremmachevini event, showcasing the wines and producers from the area. Normally, it is necessary to fly to these kind of events – particularly if the events are held in Italy, where it seems the consortia are loathe to permit visiting journalists and other professionals to arrive by their own means. This is sad, not only because flying is a huge environmental burden, but because – especially for me, travelling from the south of Germany – it would often be possible to take advantage of the journey to visit a producer or two along the way.

So, I was very grateful to the consortium in Maremma that they permitted me to come by car. It allowed me to visit a couple of other estates along the 900-km drive back home. Medici Ermete, located in the region of Emilia-Romagna, was one such estate.

The Region

Actually, it is two regions – Emilia and Romagna – that have been bonded together politically for the foreseeable future. While the charms of Romagna are not to be discounted, what I am writing about today deals mostly with Emilia.

Fully half of the region is plains. Located around the Po river, after having descended from the Alps and before reaching Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna does not enjoy the same kind of idyllic reputation as its illustrious southern neighbour. In fact, the name of the region doesn’t immediately ring too many bells for most people when they hear it. But, ah! What if we look at a couple of the cities that call Emilia-Romagna home? Bologna, Ravenna, Modena, Parma, Ferrara and Rimini are all part of this, one of Italy’s most wealthy regions. Suddenly, some bells are pealing for Emilia-Romagna.

The Foods

On a simple, 61-kilometer stretch of the A1, we encounter the cities of Parma, Reggio Emilia and Modena. When you hear these names, what do you think of? If you like food, you’ve most likely started to think about parmesan cheese, Parma ham and balsamic vinegar. And that is exactly what this part of Italy is famous for. To be a bit more accurate, we are talking about Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma and Aceto Balsamico di Modena. These are foods that are rightly famous – and set the standard – throughout the world. And they are protected by EU legislation to prevent fraud and the abuse of the names.

The Wines

There is, however, another famous progeny of this region: Lambrusco. Yes, poor, red (or rosé), fizzy Lambrusco, whose reputation has been defiled and debauched – like so many Italian wines – by greed and short-sightedness. Overproduction, high residual sugar and insipidness in the pursuit of high volumes and low prices for export – not to mention preconceptions about what international tastes might be, have damaged perceptions of the wine for the long term. That worked for a while to make money, but it has done the wine no favours. Fortunately, the region can count many high-quality producers among the estates still making these wines. Things are beginning to change, and good Lambrusco is starting to turn heads.

Believe it or not, this post is not about Lambrusco. It is about vinegar.

But not just any vinegar. Yes, I just barely mentioned Aceto Balsamico di Modena, which, as I said, is known around the world. It is also an industrial product, made with grape must and, sometimes, grape juice, with the addition of wine vinegar. What I’m talking about here is the real deal, and far less known: Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia, which is an altogether different animal – and you probably wouldn’t use it to make salad dressing.

The Estate

Medici Ermete makes both wonderful Lambrusco and beguiling Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia. I had the pleasure of being able to stop by one morning for a visit and a tasting of both the vinegars and the wines. Alessandro Medici – the youngest generation of the family – showed me around and introduced me to the art that is Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale. And he invited me for lunch at the estate, too.

Let us address the obvious question immediately: yes, the “Medici” in Medici Ermete is, in fact, that legendary Florentine family. But the wine estate was never more than nominally connected to the powerful, rich part of the family – apparently they simply married into this part of Italy.

The original Medici Ermete estate was founded hundreds of years ago, but they have been selling their own wines only since the 19th century.

The Vinegar

Valpolicella has the fruttaio: buildings used for the drying of harvested grapes destined for Amarone and the like. Emilia-Romagna has the acetaia, which are the buildings where the Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is made. This is where the magic happens – and it happens using the same system used in Spanish Jerez to create Sherry and Brandy: the Solera System.

At Medici Ermete, Alessandro says that Lambrusco is their business, but Aceto is their hobby and passion. And they would need to be passionate about it, because production is tiny, labour-intensive and expensive. All of their production – a meagre 2000 tiny bottles of the precious fluid annually – falls under the exclusive and rare Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia PDO. Which means that none of it is the simple, industrial Aceto Balsamico di Modena that adorns restaurant tables and grocery store shelves around the world, finding its way into salad dressings in millions of households daily.

How is it made?

I will describe the process as it is practiced at Medici Ermete.

The Must

Balsamic vinegar starts out being made much like wine does, with wine grapes being harvested and pressed for the must. The grapes used at most estates – including at Medici Ermete – are mostly Trebbiano di Modena and Trebbiano di Romagna, with some of the Lambrusco varieties as well. Once pressed, the next step is to cook the must in large copper kettles – a step that is sharply divergent from winemaking. The copper pots are fired from below, and the process takes place in the courtyard out front of the acetaia. Cooking of the must goes on for 12-15 hours.

Alessandro explains the cooking of the must on the spot where it takes place

Fermentation and Ageing

After having been reduced to just 30% of the original volume, the must is fermented and aged in wooden barriques for two years “downstairs” in the acetaia . At Medici Ermete, they have isolated 70 different strains of yeasts from their own vineyards that are used for the fermentation process. The must generally reaches an alcoholic strength of 4-5% by volume when it is finished fermenting. Afterwards, it is moved “upstairs” into the waiting batteria.

A number of different battteria at Medici Ermete.

A batteria is a group of five barrels (which you would recognise as a “Solera”, if you’ve read my post on the topic). These are made of various woods and are of diverse sizes. Woods used include oak, chestnut, cherry, acacia and others; each batteria is different. And, as already mentioned, the process of ageing used is the Solera System. Each batteria is an individual, with many of them being established at the birth of the children – and named for them. The oldest has been in continuous operation for 112 years, though the vinegar in it is has “only” been ageing for 50 years.

This is the first barrel of the oldest batteria at the estate

As you can see from the pictures, each barrel has a piece of muslin cloth covering the bung hole. This is to prevent fruit flies from getting at the precious aceto within, while still permitting the liquid to breathe. According to Alessandro, it “works” in the warm months and “rests” in the cold. The acetaia is not insulated, nor is it heated or air-conditioned.

The Finishing

But there is an important difference at Medici Ermete. Instead of filling the vinegar from the last barrel of the batteria (called the solera in Spanish, if you’ve read my other post), the nearly-finished vinegar is transferred first to one of dozens of small, 3-litre barrels made from a large variety of woods for finishing for 3-6 months. The barrels were found at a market by Alessandro’s grandfather while on a trip to Croatia. He immediately realised that they would be perfect as the final step for his precious vinegar, and nobody else seems to make them. He bought every last one that he could get and brought them back to Italy.

A large array of 3-litre casks

The Classification

As PDOs (Protected Designation of Origin), the process and provenance of the two Tradizionale vinegars of Emilia-Romagna are protected by the EU. To make this vinegar and benefit from the PDO, one is obliged to be a member of one of the consortia responsible for it. There are only two consortia: Modena and Reggio Emilia. Of the two, the Reggio Emilia consortium is the smaller – by far. Both the Modena and Reggio Emilia consortia have different bottle shapes that producers are required to use in order to be certified. Ageing criteria are also slightly different.

In Modena, there are two main classifications which are indicated by the colour of the bottle’s closure:

  • a white cap indicates ageing of at least 12 years
  • a gold cap means ageing of 25 years or more.

In Reggio Emilia there are three colours – and three categories:

  • red means ageing of 12 years
  • silver means ageing of 18 years
  • gold means ageing 25 years or more.

The long ageing in wood barrels also means that much fluid evaporates, further reducing the amounts made, concentrating the flavours and thickening the liquid.

Parmigiano is recommended with the Silver Capsule AcetoSim

The Tasting

After having had a tour of the acetaia and a tasting of the estate’s wines, I was able to have a wonderful lunch together with Alessandro and other members of the estate, as well as some guests from Canada and Spain. Here, we were able to try all three classifications of the vinegar with appropriate foods – and let me tell you, all three were exquisite. Viscous, fruity – and not at all sour, as one would have expected from a vinegar. They were gloriously complex fluids, bursting with flavour and intensity, and with incredible length. The Red Capsule was already a delight, but the Silver and, particularly, the Gold offered nuances of roasted nuts and caramel along with the intense fruit and herb character. The Gold capsule was reminiscent of a fine Pedro Ximinez Sherry, both from the colour and the viscosity – and even some of the flavour, but certainly far less sweet.

Tasting was done with food, but beforehand we were always given a drop on a spoon from a glass ampoule, so that we could really appreciate the character and individuality of each of these fine delicacies.

Vinegar with pedigree

A word to the wise: these vinegars are NOT used to make salad dressing. For one thing, they are prohibitively expensive for that. For another, it would be a real waste of such a nuanced delicacy. After asking, I was told that they use the simple, basic, industrial Aceto Balsamico di Modena for salad dressings, just like you or me. No, the Tradizionale vinegars are saved for special foods. If you are interested, here’s what they recommended as foods to pair with each of the categories of vinegar:

  • Red Capsule: fresh cheese, meats, fish – it enhances most foods
  • Silver Capsule: Parmigiano, fillets – strong flavours and salty foods
  • Gold Capsule: ice cream, strawberries – sweet and fine foods
The gold capsule on ice cream, served with an off-dry Lambrusco. Simple, yet extravagant.

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