In Modena, Giovanni Leonardi is as famous as Enzo Ferrari or Luciano Pavarotti.
There are over 300 producers of balsamic vinegar in Modena, but less than a handful can say they own the land where the grapes are grown from which they produce the “mosto” to make their own vinegar, let alone bottle it and sell it. Since 1871 and after four generations, the famiglia Leonardi, with Giovanni as the artist and his son Franceso as the (pusher) embody what we at Manicaretti believe to be one the most perfect producers of its kind.
The Leonardi farm is located 16 km. southwest of the city of Modena, near the river Secchia and Sassuolo at the foothills of the Apennines. The 10 hectares of land surrounding the family house and acetaia have a canopy of local clones ofLambrusco and Trebbiano grapes, which have been planted and trained in arbor method to ensure that the fruit ripens in the shade of its own leaves during the very hot summer months. The grapes are hand-harvested in September and October and crushed using a pneumatic-press, which gently burst the fruit while not crushing the stems or the seeds. The resulting “mosto” is then stored in a large vat overnight at low temperature, and cooked for 72 hours in an open-air copper cauldron at 85° C. Giovanni emphasizes that the temperature should never exceed 90° C because it would create excessive amount of caramelization giving the vinegar a bitter taste which would be impossible to remove. Once the cooking is done, the “mosto” –which by now has lost almost 70 % of its initial volume—becomes a dense, dark, fragrant and deliciously sweet brown syrup.
From this point onwards, every vinegar maker has his own tradition, “recipe” and style.
Many producers pour the hot syrup directly into large oak barrels and others pour it in glass demijohns and store it over the winter. At the Leonardi farm, the mosto is put into stainless-steel tanks such as those used in wineries, which are located outside, so that the cold Autumn air will prevent it from fermenting. The mosto is then transferred into large oak casks laid on the ground and cut with older balsamic vinegar, which will start the process of fermentation that will take at least 4 to 7 years.
After 4 years and during the Winter months Giovanni will distribute the “Saba” will be distributed among all the different “batterie” (sets of barrels), which are located in the attics of all the buildings around the farm. A “batteria” is composed of at least 6 barrels of different types of precious woods such as chestnut, oak, cherry, juniper, as well as ash and mulberry, giving the balsamic the aromatic notes which each producer decides to give during the ageing process.
Balsamic vinegar barrels are never stored down in a cellar as in wine-making but rather in an attic. The difference in temperatures between Summer and Winter, day and night, rain or shine is what makes magic happen within them. Art as some people say.
Every Winter, Giovanni follows the same ritual: starting from the smallest barrel, he takes a few liters of the older balsamic vinegar which is immediately bottled. In its place, he pours the same amount he removed from the barrel located next to it, and so on and so forth, until he fills the amount removed from the largest barrel with the aged saba.
This ageing of balsamic vinegar can take anywhere from 15 to 150 years, giving a more dense, complex and shiny syrup as time in the barrel increases. Depending on how long the balsamic vinegar has spent in the batterie, the nuances, aromas, sweetness and acidity blend with bitterness and roundness to create a product without peers.
The best way to taste a Leonardi balsamic vinegar is as Giovanni does: pour a drop on the back of your hand and lick it!