Balsamic has been made for family use for hundreds of years.
The balsamic we get from La Vecchia Dispensa is made by the Tintori family. When I visited, Simone Tintori showed me around the acetaia—the space where the balsamic is made. His family has perhaps a dozen sets of balsamic barrels. A set is called a batteria and typically includes five barrels. As Simone explained it to me, each batteria is made by the grandfather when a new daughter is born into the family. The balsamic made in them will become a part of her dowry, but they’ll remain with the family’s collection even after she is married. The dozen batterie in the Tintori family’s collection represent a dozen daughters over the last few generations.
Each batteria bears the name of the daughter who owns them. I saw Antonietta, Guendolina, Roberta. Many are decades old. As we walked through the acetaia, Simone points out batterie belonging to his sister, his aunts, his grandmother. On the walls above the barrels were old black and white family photos. “The acetaia is our family pantheon,” Simone poetically explained.
The same barrels made for Simone’s grandmother when she was a toddler are still in use today.
In fact, they’re probably at their best now, having decades of use. When you put vinegar in wood, it doesn’t just flavor the vinegar. The vinegar also flavors the wood. It’s an ongoing virtuous cycle, a vinegar-flavored container gives a different, more complex flavor to the vinegar than the brand new one did. A well-made vessel can be used for as long as a century before it falls apart.
It’s the barrels that give the balsamic most of its flavor.
To make traditional balsamic, you start with just one ingredient: grape must, the unattractively named fresh-pressed juice of grapes, skins, seeds, and stems. The grape must is cooked and reduced, then it goes straight into barrels. To start the aging process, it’s mixed with a little of last year’s balsamic, called the “mother,” which kicks off the transformation from must to vinegar. As it ages the balsamic will spend time in at least four different barrels or as many as a dozen. The containers in a batteria are typically made from a variety of different woods including oak, acacia, cherry, juniper, and mulberry. By the time the balsamic is ready to sell, it will have spent time in each type of wood in the batteria. Each type contributes a different flavor. Older ones add complexity and balance. Vecchia Dispensa ages in good wooden barrels for years, and you can taste the complexity and balance they give.