Why is Balsamic Vinegar made in Modena?

Balsamic vinegar has always been recognized as a typical product of the Modena area

Think that already in 1046 King Henry II of Franconia expressed interest in the Balsamic Vinegar of the Marquis of Canossa (Reggio Emilia) family, who owned a vinegar factory in Emilia.

During the Renaissance, balsamic vinegar was nominated by the highest European aristocracies; the Estense dukes, who moved from Ferrara to Modena in 1598, had their private vinegar factory in the attic of the left tower of the Ducal Palace in Modena (36 barrels in the Torrione del Prato, reachable after 151 steps), and gave Balsamic vinegar to the kings and to the princes of the time, as a precious gift; it is no coincidence that in 1792 an ampoule of Balsamic Vinegar was the gift of Duke Ercole III of Este to Francis I of Austria on the occasion of his coronation.

It is precisely here that the adjective “balsamic” appears for the first time in the 18th century, in documents relating to the inventory of the ducal cellars, where incoming and outgoing books and accounting records were compiled to always know the exact quantity of must that was to be used to “accommodate” the vinegar factory and the consumption that was made at court was always controlled through a notebook in which the quantities used by each individual person were noted.

But why precisely in Modena?

The birth and dissemination of Balsamic Vinegar in the Modena area is due to the concurrence of two types of factors:
1. Natural factors: the particular soil and climatic conditions, the indigenous bacteria.
2. Human factors: the succession of historical events, uses and customs

1. Natural Factors: Pedoclimatic Conditions and Native Bacteria

• The land of Modena is a middle land between the Panaro river and the Secchia river. These two rivers are among the main tributaries of the longest river in Italy, the Po, which flows nearby and forms the Po valley. It is an area with an abundance of water throughout history.
• The climate of central/northern Italy is continental, with great heat in summer and very cold in winter, and moreover in these areas there is always very high humidity, precisely due to the massive presence of watercourses.

The land is therefore very fruitful, for example the famous Vignola cherries, but also all the types of grapes that grow in this area, such as Lambrusco, which has become one of the most exported wines in the world.
• Emilia has always been an area of farmers and peasants.

Abundance of grapes means abundance of must, which was often reduced, through cooking, for the production of Saba (cooked must, Sapa for the Romans). Saba was used as a sweetener throughout the peninsula, before the advent of sugar beet.

Columella, famous Roman agricultural writer of the 1st century AD, in his treatise “De Re Rustica”, mentions the strange behavior of musts from the Modena area which, after cooking, tend to ferment and acetify. Something particular happens in these areas, unlike in the rest of the country: grape musts, even after cooking, tend to ferment into vinegar.

2. Human Factors: Succession of Historical Events, Uses and Customs

The reason for the Modenese production area must also be sought in the character of the inhabitants of these territories: in their propensity for work, patience, in the desire to leave a precious good as an inheritance to others, in the strong bond with one’s territory, in the attachment to own traditions.

• We have seen how since the first century AD balsamic vinegar was an Emilian thing, and despite all the historical events and passages of power in these lands, Romans, Longobards, Papacy, Empire, Napoleon, etc., Modena families have never stopped handing down this heritage, which has become the real pride of our land.

• Initially it was not traded at all. Each family produced it and jealously kept it in their own barrels, to then give it to dear friends, or to use it as a payment currency, or to enrich the dowry of their daughters, a custom that has been handed down to this day. Many Modenese continue to prepare and start batteries of Balsamic Vinegar every time they become parents, dedicating the new battery of barrels to the new born.

• Could it also be the type of architecture of Modena houses that influenced the birth of Balsamic Vinegar in these areas? In Modena there has always been an attic in country houses, a habitable attic. And it is this that over the centuries the people of Modena have understood to be the right place to age Traditional Balsamic Vinegar.

Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena

“The Modenese house has a rectangular plan and (…) is smaller than the one in Bologna or Ferrara. The smaller surface area is compensated for in height. Usually, there is also an attic floor, spacious and habitable, intended for rest, in the case of a large or extended family unit, or used as a granary. The windows are smaller than those of the rooms below, yet useful for air circulation.” (Cit. Celli Beatrice – PhD “RURAL ARCHITECTURE IN THE MODENA PLAIN” Alma Mater Bologna – 2017)


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