On the edge of Modena at his ‘acetaia’ Villa San Donnino, Davide Lonardi transforms his own Trebbiano grapes into balsamic vinegar according to strict tradition, fermenting and then ageing the cooked grape must in a series of wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 years.
Photos + interview by Alecia Wood
You’re a third-generation balsamic vinegar producer. How did your family start out making it?
My family started the production in 1947, when my grandfather bought the house where we live now. In the attic there were the vinegar barrels from the original family, and there were some barrels from the 19th Century that had a very good balsamic vinegar inside. So my grandfather started our production, we bought other barrels, then my father took over, and now it is me and my wife.
There are plenty of false ‘balsamic vinegars’ on the market today – industrial versions that aren’t aged and use added flavours and colourings. Does that make things difficult for traditional producers like you?
This is a problem, because the balsamic vinegar of Modena is very famous all over the world. It’s not easy to find the real traditional balsamic vinegar in other countries because the [amount of] production is very limited, and unfortunately now there are a lot of imitations. People come here [to find balsamic vinegar], but generally they know only the commercial version. For many people, the most important words [on a bottle] are ‘balsamic of Modena’, not ‘traditional’, and these are two completely different products. We are only very small producers, so we do not have the possibility to explain to everybody this difference, so it’s very important when we have the possibility here on our farm to meet people and explain that to them. The chance to do that is only here.
How would you describe the flavour of a true, traditionally produced balsamic vinegar?
It’s not like wine, where you can find many different flavours – fruits, vegetables, and so on – as there’s a particular smell and flavour typical only for the traditional balsamic vinegar. The difference between two traditional balsamic vinegars depends on the age and the kinds of wood used [in the vinegar ageing barrels]. For example, cherry wood is fruity, juniper wood is aromatic, chestnut wood is better for the colour. Now there are a lot of commercial products, you can find many [bottles of] ‘balsamic vinegar of Modena’ but the difference among those types of vinegar is just the amount of grape juice, wine vinegar and caramel they put into the bottle. Of course, with the 12-year-old balsamic vinegar – the minimum ageing period for the traditional vinegar – and the 25-year-old vinegar, you can taste the wood, it’s smoother, and the acidity isn’t so aggressive like the commercial types.
Your property has its own grapevines and ageing rooms.
In my case, everything is made here, but only the consortium – an association of producers – can bottle the traditional balsamic vinegar, not the producer. There is a very strict control. I grow my own grapes, I press them and cook the juice here before it is aged [and transformed into vinegar], then it is taken to the consortium to be bottled.
Are your grapes and product influenced by variations in weather?
It’s not like wine, because firstly the grape juice is cooked [before being turned into vinegar], and second [the product] is not a production from one year – it’s a blend from different years. The problem is the cost. For example, in 2013 it rained a lot, so there wasn’t a lot of sugar in the grapes, so we had to cook the juice for more time to make it more concentrated.
What’s your biggest challenge here at the acetaia?
For us, tourism is very important – people coming here to visit. Until 15 years ago there weren’t a lot of people around Modena from other countries. Now, our typical local products like balsamic vinegar, Parmigiano Reggiano and prosciutto are very famous all over the world. People come here to understand the production, which gives us the possibility to explain all these processes. I hope in the future more people will come here, but I hope that the media can speak about balsamic vinegar, so that people can really understand the difference between commercial and traditional vinegars.
How is making balsamic vinegar different from other types of food production?
There are three elements needed for this type of production – for sure, a lot of grapes; a lot of time, because for traditional balsamic vinegar it’s necessary to age it for a minimum of 12 years; and especially a lot of passion. Passion is crucial because this is an important product for the tradition of local families. It’s very important to pass this tradition from one generation to the next.
This producer was visited during a tour with Carolinasusi Tours.