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From Vine to Bottle in Just 100 Years

About an hour from Modena, along winding roads and tucked away in a small village between vineyards, almond groves and farmyards, is an amazing experience I highly recommend that you try for yourselves.

At Corte dei Campi Macri, the Leonardi family have been making Modena's balsamic vinegar since 1871 using time-honored methods. They grow and hand-harvest their own Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes, grown in the vineyards that surround their countryside property. They carefully cook the juice in special kettles according to their own recipe for as long as 36 hours to produce the Must that will sit for years in barrels. They age the vinegar for decades to gather intense flavors and textures before selling their elixir at the farm, and around the world.

At Acetaia Leonardi time is not of the essence, time IS the essence. It has to be when it takes decades to make their award-winning balsamic vinegar, it must be when time is one of the few ingredients in this wonderful condiment.

We visited Leonardi a few weeks ago, when the vines were bare but the vineyards bursting with color from the wildflowers that covered the ground. We were graciously hosted with an extraordinary visit that took us through the history and stages of production of balsamic vinegar and which culminated in barrel-tasting 100-year-old vinegar before we were treated to a delicious lunch which featured local delicacies paired with vinegars that had been aged between 10 and 30 years.

At Leonardi, in accordance with tradition, and the regulations of the consortium, the Must is aged in batteries of at least nine wooden barrels, placed in decreasing size, from 180 to 10 liters. Each barrel is made of a different type of wood including oak, ash, juniper, cherry, mulberry, chestnut and others, and is filled to 75% of its capacity. Unlike in wine, oxidation and evaporation is important, and the barrels are left open with just a linen cloth covering to keep dust and insects out. Unlike in wine, where barrels are stored in a cool environment, at Leonardi the batteries are placed in the attics where the temperature range is higher. The secrets of aging are handed down within the family and depend on the long experience and personal taste of the master taster.

During the cooler winter months, when the vinegar is “sleeping”, the reduced liquid is transferred from its barrel to the smaller one alongside where it will continue its slow acquisition of essences and characteristics. At Leonardi, every numbered barrel has its own identity, telling of its size, the amount of vinegar it holds, when it was made, from what wood, and when the battery was started.

We've seen barrels of every age, size and shape in our visits to wineries all over the world but this was an exceptional experience, seeing, touching barrels in constant use since 1790. We learned about the diverse flavors different types of wood impart on the vinegar. In a comparative tasting we barrel-sampled aged vinegar from both juniper and from cherry barrel batteries, and as expected found spicy notes dominant in the juniper and sweet in the cherry.

And let's not forget the pairing with food. For every dish there is a different balsamic vinegar: for salads they recommend 10-years-aged, for Parmesan cheese use 15-20 years, and for desserts, silky, sweet and spicy 30-years-aged vinegar.

David Silverman is a wine, travel and lifestyle photographer whose work is distributed worldwide by Getty Images

Photos and text by David Silverman/dpsimages. Copyright © 2017. All Rights Reserved.

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