It seems like a long distance memory, when in September 2011 I packed my bags and took myself off to a little semi-rural village in Italy – Novellara in the traditional Balsamic Vinegar making region in Reggio Emillia….. Here is my story of how we came to make our first release ‘Ambush Hill’ Aged red wine vinegar…….
The initial motivation in starting a red wine vinegar was to reduce the waste of our opened red wine samples which were no longer used in cellar door. (We could only drink so much!) Our wines have low sulphur so are perfect to innoculate with some vinegar culture. In a nutshell acetobacteria is added to convert the alcohol into acetic acid. Once I reassured Corrina that I would keep the ‘mother culture’ tank/hoses etc away from her wine – we were set! Vinegar survives on neglect – loves heat, oxygen and darkness. So think of everything you shouldn’t do with a red wine and it is almost okay for a vinegar. Our storage vessels are stainless steel for the first addition and then in to old disused oak barrels. The vineyard guys bore a few extra holes in the barrels and attached some fly wire over the top and we keep them in a solera type system in the tractor shed.
As interest grew and we were adding other products to our range like the ‘1841’ Extra Virgin Olive oil – the curiousity grew for ‘Traditional Balsamic Vinegar making’….as I read and investigated more on this process my interest grew and with the funding help provided by the amazing initiative of the Food and Beverage Development Fund of SA. I set off to Italy to learn from the real makers. Carol Graham is the fund director and what a dynamo. I encourage anyone who wants to further develop their field of interest to apply. It is available for the learner and I highly recommend the process. 2014 cut off is in Janurary.
Italy -Acetaia San Giacomo
My touch down in Italy was Florence-I had loved her once before in my backpacker purple patch and I wandered the piazza’s this time without the old desperation of seeing and photographing everything—although I did find myself on the Ponte Vecchio Bridge without anyone to kiss AGAIN.
I then boarded a couple of trains until I reached Reggiolo a small un-touristy type town out of Reggio Emilia. Nearby was a even smaller rural town called Novellara where Acetatia San Giacomo resided.
Acetaia San Giacomo
And between the several tractors, must reducing, singers, artists, pigs, and forme di formmagio brings us to the heart of Emilia (-Romagna)
The first visit out to the Acetaia was beautiful, unusually hot for the start of Autumn. The grandness of the rustic house and barn (originally that of the Gavioli family) was breathtaking for someone from a new world. Although an empathy for ongoing maintenance and the trial and tribulations of old buildings was also understood.
Andrea Bezzechi and the team have created an inviting modern-old concept which allows visitors to enjoy the tradition and original era of the building but with a functionability and artisian displays which communicate the concept of his traditional balsamic vinegar production.
Andrea has developed a complicated passion for the traditional vinegar making style which leaves him with amazing products, an understanding of biodynamics-albeit always struggling against mass industrial products and consumer understanding.
The certification to become a traditional vinegar producer of Reggio Emilia is vigourous but necessary to protect the quality and regionality.
In a nutshell – 99 % of balsamic is industrial and contains additons and must added to red wine vinegar, question is maybe this is the only way to mantain turnover (30 days vs 12 years) but if you get to try the traditional you are in a whole new world.
Andrea inherited his father’s batterias’ on his passing in 1994. Whilst juggling increasing sales from the granary of his family home, finishing a law degree and providing service at his family run Bar Rome, it became apparent that a new production area and front of house was necessary.
In 2001 a common passion for the vinegar was identified with Giacomo ( producer of wine Valpolicella ) and a partnership was established naming the business Acetaia San Giacomo.
In 2003 with a law degree completed and an increased band of balsamic customers, Andrea spoke to his architect friend Luca and the sight for the Acetaia was purchased.
Today, Acetaia San Gaicomo enjoys the tranquility of the countryside, demonstration of culture and tradition.
Making ‘Traditional Balsamic Vinegar’
One thing to consider when purchasing the real Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia is that the product you are buying is aged a minimum of 12 years (for the red/lobster label one) and up to 40-50 years (the gold label). Each 100 ml vial (about 1/5 of a pint) of silver label Balsamico Tradizionale (aged from 12 to 24 years) is produced by slow concentration of 50 litres of grape must, the equivalent of 67 bottles of wine all concentrated in a single, tiny vial!
No wine is used in the production of the Balsamico Tradizionale: while regular aceto is produced from wine, Balsamico Tradizionale is made exclusively with grape “must” that goes through a series of natural refining processes.
First, the must is boiled to concentrate it, reducing it to half/third of the original volume. This concentrate must is known as saba and is an excellent sweetener, wonderful on plain cream or vanilla gelato or with fruits, or even on crushed ice for a homemade granita.
Later, this saba is put into large vats and left with the bacteria that produces vinegar. After a while the product is a mildly sweet and sour, brownish vinegar, called agro di mosto. This is when things get interesting. This mild vinegar gets transferred to smaller barrels for the aging process.
This is unlike any other aging process in the world. The barrels are organized in rows (batterie) from larger to smaller, each in a different wood (usually oak, chestnut, mulberry, cherry, ash and juniper). The vinegar ages and concentrates in the barrels, and yearly the smaller barrel get filled up with Balsamico Tradizionale coming from the upstream larger one and so on, until the largest barrel is topped with the agro di mosto produced that year.
Making Traditional vinegar was also quoted from blog writer – Alice Swain from slowtravel.com . Visit her page for some great recommendations.
The final product, drawn from the smallest barrel, will not be drawn for selling for at least 12 years after the whole process started (for the red/lobster label). By then the liquid will have concentrated to a very visous consistency with a unique taste and flavour.
Returning to Oliver’s Taranga
The one advantage of learning straight from the ‘real’ balsamic people, I was able to come home with reverence and awe of this tradition. I have since stomped, cooked down and have also created a quince and apple vinegar.
Cooking must in Italy
With 5 years of aging, and an addition of cooked down concentrate we present our ‘Ambush Hill’ Red Wine Vinegar. It shows the promise of the traditional product we could make in the future. With food and wine movement leading the way in Australia, it will be good to see foodies experience the real thing in the future.
‘Ambush Hill’ is one of the higher rises which is a name featured on one of our old ‘McLaren Vale’ maps (circa 1920’s). Ambush Hill can be defined as the act of waiting in a concealed position in order to launch a suprise attack. Just like it’s namesake, this red wine vinegar is bottled and when released performs a dance on the tastebuds.
Grab a bottle–it teams up beautifully with the ‘1841’ olive oil……and believe in the movement towards all things traditional.