Old World charm : The heart of Italy’s 400-year-old balsamic vinegar business

Charlene Peters
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Barrels of aged Giusti balsamic vinegar.

Modena, a city referred to as “the breadbasket” in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, is where Parmigiano-Reggiano hails from, as does mortadella in its capital city of Bologna. But, specifically in Modena, what is universally recognized is its production of balsamic vinegar.

On a visit to Modena, I entered a room filled with rows of barrels that dated back to the 16th and 17th centuries, and where the aroma of balsamic vinegar permeated the air in a most welcoming way. I was here for a tour through Giuseppe Giusti’s museum and barrel room. The Giusti family began producing balsamic vinegar in 1605.

“We’ve been paying taxes here for more than 400 years,” Claudio Stefani Giusti, CEO, says with a laugh.

Giusti is a 17th-generation producer in Modena, the undisputed epicenter of Lamborghini, Maserati and Alfa Romeo. As Modena’s oldest producers, the Giusti family has created an on-site, 10-room Museum of Balsamic Vinegar, full of artifacts and memorabilia. It is here that Giusti explains balsamic vinegar’s humble beginnings.

“Balsamic vinegar is an old product — typical and traditional but not naturally occurring. It’s the result of the fruit of the region combined with the people of the region.

“Just imagine picking the grapes and extracting their juice. In Modena, wine made from local lambrusca grapes is not particularly good, and wine made from trebbiano grapes is simply ‘not bad.’ So, the grape juice we extract is concentrated by being cooked down. The result is saba, or mosto, a sweet-ish condiment to enhance the taste of food.”

As there was no refrigeration in those early days, the leftover mosto slowly oxidized in a process called acetobacter, which removes the liquid’s natural alcohol. The resulting syrupy, sweet/sour vinegar — known as balsamic since the 1800s — tastes better and better as it ages.

The word balsamic is based on the Latin word balsam, or “to feel better.” One legend has it that a duke hoping for favor from Rome sent a barrel of balsamic to the Pope, who claimed to prefer this gift to the 100 horses presented to him by another area duke.

In Modena today, tradition dictates that when a girl is born, a row of vinegar barrels is set up. When the girl gets married, those well-aged barrels become her dowry.

In 1863, one of Giuseppe Giusti’s forebears presented a paper during a trade show in Modena, defining balsamic vinegar and how to make it. He specified which types of grapes to use, and even what type of wood to make the aging barrels. At that time, the correct barrels had to be 20 years old, and the vinegar needed to live in the barrels a minimum of two years.

Paraphrased through generations, his instructions were to use juniper wood or a non-aromatic wood such as mulberry in the beginning, and oak at the end. In the middle, use cherry or chestnut. It’s important that the vinegar tastes of all the different woods that house it. Giusti explains that after 15 years the vinegar begins to get good, and after 30 years much better. After 50 years, it deserves the name balsamic.

This 150-year-old trade show speech is still known and widely quoted today as The Giusti Recipe. Today, balsamic vinegar can be made in just 60 days. Of course, the longer the product sits in the barrels, the more special it becomes.

In the Giusti family barrel rooms in Modena, no barrel is less than 100 years old. In fact, some of the barrels occasionally require renovation.

“If a barrel falls apart,” says Giusti, “you have to build a new barrel around it, so as not to disturb the product.”

The price of good balsamic vinegar begins at $20 and can range upward to $300, but much like fine wine, there is often no real way to determine if the liquid inside the bottle is superior or not.

“In the final analysis, balsamic is a condiment,” says Giusti. “You can classify it one way or the other, but you just never know its quality until you taste it.”

A selection of Giuseppe Giusti balsamic vinegars. [Charlene Peters]