From the first historic signs until today, the history of Balsamic Vinegar DOP and IGP is extraordinary. In this article we will see the long journey that has brought Balsamic Vinegar to us.
The history of Balsamic Vinegar is about tradition, culture and value. It is, to date, among the most beloved Italian culinary products and exported all over the world, as well as a highly prized condiment from one of the best cuisines of our planet: the Emilian one.
Part of its fame is undoubtedly due to the history of Balsamic Vinegar itself, a product able not only to give new notes of flavor to food, but also to tell a centuries-long story.
It is thanks to this incredible and very important history that today we can enjoy a product of the highest quality and its notes of taste so characteristic and recognizable.
So here we are ready to tell the story of Balsamic Vinegar.
The ancestors of Balsamic Vinegar
Just to begin to give some indication, several sources testify that even at the time of the first Mesopotamian civilizations the use of vinegars was really massive: we are talking about the third millennium BC.
Passing through the Ancient Egyptians, who gave a great boost to the techniques of cooking must, we arrive to the Romans.
In the first century A.D., it was even Virgil in his Georgics who spent words describing the cooking of must in the areas of Modena, a fact that leads many experts to speculate that the roots of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar DOP of Modena can be found at the very beginning of the Roman Empire.
In the Middle Ages: Reggio Emilia and Matilde di Canossa
It is in the Middle Ages that we noticed the first revolutions in the production of Balsamic Vinegar, making it a still very raw product that is still very close to the refined one we know today.
The first difference with the previous period is certainly due to the introduction of wooden barrels, which replaced the terracotta amphorae.
The most famous vinegar of this period is the one from Canossa, a locality today in the province of Reggio Emilia.
The most reliable source of this period is Vita Mathildis, a biography dating back to the 12th century about the Great Countess Matilde of Canossa written by the Benedictine monk Donizione.
In this work is described how nobles from all over the world sent messengers to Canossa to bring the famous vinegar back home.
Types of Balsamic Vinegar and their history
What has been said so far may have been a bit confusing for the less experienced. In this paragraph we will therefore try to sum up and clearly distinguish the three internationally recognized types of Balsamic Vinegar.
Let’s start by saying that currently there are mainly two types of Balsamic Vinegar: Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP and Traditional Balsamic Vinegar DOP.
The vinegar protected by the IGP trademark is the most widespread, but also the lower quality one. For example, the selection of ingredients is not as regulated and does not require a very long aging process.
Whereas Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, instead, is protected by the Protected Designation of Origin (DOP) and is distinguished as both Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP and Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia DOP. The latter types ensure a higher quality thanks to a more careful selection of raw materials and a longer aging process, distinguishing themselves from one another due to the origin of the grapes, bottling, physical and chemical characteristics, as well as some notes of flavor.
This vinegar was very probably very different from the Balsamic vinegar we know today, but it already enjoyed a good reputation among the connoisseurs of Europe, including the Emperor of Franconia Henry II.
In the Renaissance: Modena and the Este family
With the Renaissance age began a real revolution in the food tastes of the Italian aristocracy, which allowed Balsamic Vinegar to gain a place among the most beloved food products.
At that time, however, there were still many recipes for Balsamic Vinegar and the documentation on the subject is scarce at least until 1598, the year in which Modena became the capital of the Este Duchy, as well explained in the book on the history of the Este family.
It was in this year that all the nobles brought various traditional vinegars from their provinces to the new capital as a gift to the Este family. The recipes of these were mixed with those already in use for some time in Modena, gradually creating products increasingly similar to the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar DOP that we know today. Also in this period, the historical documentation and recipe books are becoming more and more precise, slowly homologating towards a precise recipe shared by all enthusiasts.
However, the process was very long, as evidenced by the fact that to find the word “balsamic” in the Este winery, we had to wait until 1747.
The history of Balsamic Vinegar: from the Unification of Italy to the present day
Up to this point Balsamic Vinegar was indeed a very well known product in the Duchy of Este and among European enthusiasts, but it was not yet so widespread.
It was with the Unification of Italy that Balsamic Vinegar became globally recognized as a highly prized product.
When the Duchy of Este became part of the Kingdom of Italy, King Victor Emmanuel II took the best vases from the vinegar cellars of Emilia to send them to Moncalieri, in Piedmont.
Here, however, no one really knew how to produce and preserve Balsamic Vinegar, with the risk that most of the finest vases would in fact, become garbage. The Piedmontese oenologists therefore turned to Francesco Agazzotti, a famous agronomist from Modena, who explained them everything there was to know about Balsamic Vinegar.
Agazzotti’s letters are incredibly precise and have served as the basis for the creation of the great legend of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar DOP, explaining step by step the production process of the most valuable vinegar in the world.
Alongside this tradition, a more peasant one continued to develop, today the basis of the much more widespread but less valuable Balsamic Vinegar IGP.
Arriving in the second half of the twentieth century, we have the birth of the first consortia. It should be noted that, again in 1967, with the foundation of the Consortium of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, the letter of Agazzotti was taken to define precisely the production methodology of Balsamic Vinegar become DOP.
More Balsamic Vinegars, more Consortia
After years and years of diatribes among enthusiasts, the European Union has decided to silence all controversy about the different types of Balsamic Vinegar, since 2000, outlining a situation that has remained practically unchanged until today.
In fact, at the end of the last century two different Protected Designations of Origin (DOP) were recognized, i.e. two different Traditional Balsamic Vinegars DOP: that of Modena and that of Reggio Emilia, different not only for the location of the vineyards, but also for the bottling and some notes of flavor.
Obviously, next to these two very valuable consortia, there is also the more widespread Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP, which remains, however, in some cases, a product of the highest level as well as the direct heir of the Traditional Balsamic Vinegar DOP, symbol of a rural tradition spanning many centuries.
It has been an honor to share this short story of Balsamic Vinegar with you. Hoping it has conveyed the follow important message that: when you buy Traditional Balsamic Vinegar DOP, you are buying a traditional product at its finest. You choose to buy part of the history of the Emilian territory, the result of a tradition handed down through the centuries and dating back to ages far from ours.