So, my original title for this article was “A Brief history of the Molise Wine Region”…
I now understand what a foolish & naive child that title choice shows me to be. Back when I started researching the topic (what feels like sometime in the late 80s) I thought it better, before I started speaking about Molise’s wines, that I should understand Molise’s history better.
Since then I’ve learnt, the words “Brief” and “South Italian History” can’t exist in the same hemisphere, let alone the same sentence. Molise, in particular, is the Keyser Söze of Italian regions, one minute it’s there and then…like that…*poof*…it’s gone.
So, I apologize in advance for the length of this article and also for any inaccuracies. I’ve done my best to keep the timeline & events reasonably simple but, well, you’ll start to understand how tricky this becomes as you read. For fun, I’ve included as many maps of Italy, through the ages, as I could. It gives a nice visual method for seeing how often this land changes.
Pre-History (and wine)
I started by treating Molise like any other region. Looking back to ancient history when in the 1st Century BC the land was inhabited by a tribe known as the Samnites. When they weren’t giving those upstart Romans a bloody good thrashing on the battlefield they were, of course, busy enjoying wine. The Samnites covered an area which included much of modern-day Molise. However, like the rest of the peninsula, the Samnites eventually succumbed to the Romans.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, things got a bit turbulent in South Italy for a little while. How long was this period of turbulence? From what I can see it seems to have lasted around 1500 years; give or take a century.
It was as if a rumour was spread to the other major European powers. That there was a land of great beaches, incredible food and where wine was considered one of the five major food groups. Even better, this land lacked a strong central government or army to keep an eye on the place.
Everybody wanted in on this South Italian party.
The First to The Party
It was the Germans, or the Lombards as they were known, who decided to act first. They came sweeping down from the North and set up shop around Benevento. Under the Lombards, the land of Molise would become part of this Duchy of Benevento. The Lombards remained mostly in place, having seen off a couple of attempted attacks from Muslim Saracens, up until 1045.
Of course, if the Germans are at the party it means the French (Normans) can’t be too far behind and around 1045 they started to appear on the scene. The Normans, unlike the shock & awe approach they took with England, decided on a more subtle strategy in South Italy. They were initially invited into the area where over the years their influence grew until in 1130 they took over the place by creating the Kingdom of Sicily.
How Many Sicilies Are There?!
However, there was one benefit to having the Normans arrive. It’s during their reign, around the 11th century, that Molise gets its name from a Norman feudal lord, a Mouisuer Raoul de Moulins.
The Contado di Molise (or County of Molise) was born. Initially it part of the Kingdom of Sicily…before becoming part of of the Kingdom of Naples…and then part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, but I jump ahead of myself.
Let’s just take a moment to rejoice that finally, we have Molise on the map!
So in the 11th Century, we have a region called Molise. Well, not so fast there, history is a fickle mistress, especially when it comes to South Italy. During the following centuries the area we know today as Molise was joined & split from many other regions within Abruzzo, Puglia & Campania.
Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition…or Napoleon
This continued till the Spanish (The Bourbons), having waited patiently in line, decided it was their turn. From 1516 both Naples & Sicily came under direct Spanish rule. In 1538, during the Spanish domination, much of Molise was attached to Capitanata (or northern Puglia). This led to a further dissolving of Molise as a single region as it was slowly divided into smaller regions ruled by individual lords.
It required the return of the French and the intervention of that great bringer of stability, Napolean, to provide Molise autonomy for the first time. In 1806, under Napoleon, we have a region simply called Molise and that maps pretty well onto modern-day maps. Finally!
Of course, this could not last. Napoleon was defeated in 1814 meaning that South Italy reverted to the Spanish under Ferdinand IV with many of Napoleon’s decrees revoked.
So we’re back to The Contado di Molise. *Sigh*, so close.
We’re Almost There
This continued till 1861, and the unification of Italy. Here that great hero Garibaldi and The Expedition of the Thousand managed to defeat The House of Bourbon, pushing the Spanish out of Southern Italy. This finally led to the unification of Italy and allowed Molise to take its rightful place on the map.
Only one tiny problem, hardly worth mentioning really….I couldn’t find Molise on the Unification map from 1861….
This is because Molise was joined to Abruzzo becoming Abruzzi e Molise (often just shortened to Abruzzi as we can see). Not to perpetuate that often unfairly used saying but at this point again “Molise Non Esiste”.
Molise – The Youngest Italian Wine Region
But here, coming up to the present day, we can move to one final map and thankfully a happy ending. In 1963 Molise split from Abruzzo becoming once again an independent region. Today it’s Italy’s youngest and second smallest region.
With all the above it can be easy to understand why Molise hasn’t had the highest international profile, especially when compared to other Italian regions. With its tumultuous history and literally dropping off the map every 100 years or so it’s a testament to the regions perseverance that it exists at all.
Want to Explore More?
To really explore the wines of Molise head over to Molise Cuisine for details of wine-tasting events & organised vineyard tours. I have partnered with some of the best vineyards in Molise to provide you with a unique insight into the regional wine & food available from this unspoiled region.