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A fierce rivalry rages in the Emilia Romagna region of northern Italy. The conflict? Food, of course—in particular, which town produces the best balsamic vinegar. On one side is Modena, known for centuries worldwide as a premium balsamic vinegar producer. On the other is Reggio Emilia, a village that puts out a smaller volume than Modena but is gaining stature among vinegar purists.
As with most feuds, each town worships its own heroes. In Modena, that’s Giorgio Barbieri, a typical aceto balsamico craftsman who runs a balsamic business out of his home and is master taster at local competitions. He transfers the cooked grapes from barrel to barrel for years until the mixture thickens to the consistency of caramel. His family has been making vinegar for a century.
“I learned from my grandmother,” says Barbieri, a slender, athletic man who coaches professional women’s volleyball on the side. “It was always a product that was made for personal use and only in noble families. If farmers had grapes on hand, they would just make wine out of them.”
He now runs a small business, Acetaia di Giorgio, with his wife, Cati. “He has vinegar in his blood,” she jokes.
Just north, on the outskirts of Reggio Emilia, Andrea Bezzecchi and his mother, Carla, run Acetaia San Giacomo out of a spacious barn opposite a vineyard. “It’s hard work. You need to look at this long term,” Bezzecchi says, overlooking his vast collection of chestnut, juniper and oak barrels. “People’s knowledge of Reggio Emilia has changed a lot over the last 10 years. I remember when my father was doing this 15 years ago, no one believed that people in Reggio Emilia made balsamic vinegar.”
“Modenese vinegar is better known, but ours is better,” claims Carlo Ferretti, president of the Reggio Emilia vinegar consortium.
“You know why they began making vinegar in Reggio?” counters Cati Barbieri. “Because Modenese people who had summer houses near Reggio took their barrels with them.”
The two factions will likely never agree, but they have more in common than they would like to admit. Namely, they’re both obsessed with quality. While anyone can slap a label on a bottle of fermented grape juice, all high-end producers need an official seal bearing the coveted DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or Protected Designation of Origin) distinction, which verifies that the products originate in the towns they claim. It also proves the makers passed a complicated round of taste tests and their vinegars are bottled using the standardized shape. (Renowned car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro created the official round flask for Modena in 1988). Only then do certified balsamic makers earn the right to call their product Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale Di Modena or Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia and can charge on average between 40 euros and 95 euros, or between $54 and $122 at current exchange, per bottle.
The Modena balsamico comes in two varieties, aged a minimum of 12 or 25 years. Reggio Emilia offers the same two options, plus a third product of intermediate quality aged between 12 and 25 years. Much like wine, the vinegar takes on the flavor of the wood barrels in which it is aged. Juniper fosters a savory taste in the vinegar, making it suitable for meats and fish. Cherry wood gives it a sweet tinge. This more sugary variety is often poured on ice cream or even raspberries.
While Modena has long reigned in the battle of vinegar, Reggio Emilia’s Bezzecchi has managed to snag one high-profile client: DiPalo’s Fine Foods in New York’s Little Italy, which has gone so far as to “adopt” a set of barrels at Acetaia San Giacomo to age its own personal balsamic stock. It will take nearly a decade for the barrels, still fermenting their first batch of table wine vinegar, to generate true aceto balsamico. But Luigi DiPalo, co-owner of the store, says it’s well worth the wait. “I personally will never get to taste the very old balsamic vinegar that comes from them, but my grandchildren will,” he says.