Sandwiched between Abruzzo and Puglia, on the Adriatic Sea, lies the newest province in Italy, Molise. It is the province of “seconds” – it is the second smallest region in Italy, in land area and population, but the second largest producer of truffles, including the precious tartufi bianchi. With only 4 DOCs, Molise is totally under the radar in the wine world. It was a part of Abruzzo until 1963 and it shares with its larger neighbor a geographical, historical and traditional heritage – the same mountainous terrain, rolling hills, proximity to the sea and winemaking dating to antiquity. Think 22 miles of coastline and few tourists, it could be just the place for a relaxing vacation on unspoiled beaches beside the clear blue-green waters. The Molisani think it’s really one of the last truly authentic places in Italy. But maybe you should keep that to yourself!
In spite of its diminutive size, Molise boasts a considerable prehistoric history. Archaeologists discovered three settlements in 1978 attributed to humanoid habitation dating back 700,000 years ago, probably some of the oldest sites of its type. There have been artifacts recovered here from the Paleolithic, Neolithic and Bronze ages. The Samnite tribe were the first documented and principal occupants in this area. After a series of wars with the Italic coalition, the Romans began occupation in 293 BC and finally wrapped things up with a definitive victory at the beginning of the first century BC, establishing the city of Saepium. The area flowered during the Imperial era, with four substantial cities, a strong basis in agriculture and transhumance (the movement of sheep and cows from winter to summer pastures).
The Samnite Teatro di Pietroabbondante Built 3-4th Century, BC, near Isernia (Photo: Wine andTravel Italy)
As in all of Italy, Molise suffered greatly from the devastation brought about by the barbarian invasions and the fall of the Empire. After the Gothic wars, the province was annexed to the Duchy of Benevento in 572, ruled by the Longobards, giving rise to a long period of feudalism. The Church acquired power and with stability, agriculture began to recover until the Saracen invasions beginning in the mid-800s. The terrorized inhabitants fled to higher mountain enclaves in remote areas and the province declined, with the loss of profitable trade routes and the destruction of their towns.
After 1042, under Rodolfo di Molisio and later Ugo di Molisio, the Normans brought stability, some wealth and a name to Molise. Throughout the various conquests of Italy by the Aragons, the Spaniards and the Bourbons, it became an economic backwater and increasingly poor. Between a major earthquake in 1806, extensive depopulation by emigration and the destruction of both World Wars, Molise benefitted little from industrialization or from growth in its agricultural sector. In 1963, it was detached from Abruzzo and officials have concentrated effort on growing its tourism and service sectors for economic and social advancement.
Hillside town in Molise looking west towards the Apenninne Mountains (Photo: BBC.com)
Here in the hillside vineyards, the grapes flourish. Proximity to the Adriatic, lots of sunny exposures and a blend of calcareous/morainic soils provide the recipe for all the vines need. Like its neighbor Abruzzo, this is red wine country and about 65% of production is red grapes – Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Aglianico, Barbera and native grape, Tintilia. White wine production is Trebbiano, Falanghina, Fiano, Greco, and Bombino Bianco.
There are just 4 DOC denominations in Molise. The Molise DOC encompasses the entire region of Molise. The appellation has red, rosé and white wines and is the only DOC in Molise that produces sparkling wines. Found in the east part of the region is the Biferno DOC. This denomination includes white, red and rose wine. White blends are mostly Trebbiano Toscano and Bombino Bianco. These wines are light-bodied and acidic, crisp with hints of lemon and minerality, pairing well with fish dishes. The grape varieties in the red wines are frequently Montepulciano and Aglianico, both full-bodied red wines with black fruits and floral aromas, and ideal for meats, pasta dishes with tomato sauces and aged cheeses.
Pentro di Isernia DOC is found in the western part of Molise. Vineyards here can reach elevations of 600 meters. As in the Biferno DOC, winegrowers are allowed to produce whites, reds and rose. The red wines frequently are made with Montepulciano and a Sangiovese/Montepulciano blend is often found. These wines are well suited to the more hearty and rustic cuisine of the hill territory. Many of the white wines here feature Falanghina, a nod to its near neighbor of Campania. They pair with vegetable and fish dishes, as well as for an aperitivo.
Tintilia di Molise DOC was created in 2011 to showcase the indigenous grape. Tintilia was once the most widely planted variety in Molise but many vineyards were abandoned after WWII as it’s a low yielding grape and came close to disappearing. The DOC is found in the area between the towns of Campbasso and Isernia. Tintilia produces a wine of ruby-red color, full bodied and defined tannins, with good fruit and acidity. There’s aromas and flavors of black and red fruits like prunes, plums and sour cherries, licorice and black pepper – perfect paired with grilled or roasted meats, game, or pasta with ragu sauces. Add a bottle to your Italian collection. Look for wines by:
Vincenzo Catabbo https://catabbo.it/en/vineyards/
Angelo d’Uva https://www.cantineduva.it/en/who-we-are/
Pasquale Salvatore https://www.cantinesalvatore.it/it/
The food in Molise is truly cucina della povera, the food of the poor, reflecting its years of poverty and hardship. They made the very best of whatever was at hand, and in the case of the Molisani, it is quite good indeed. The region is known for its fantastic pasta, made here with just flour and water, in all shapes and sizes. Fusilli and cavatelli originated here and fusilli with lamb ragu is perhaps the classic dish. Cavatelli with broccoli and chili is a close second. By the coast, hearty fish stews and pasta with cuttlefish top the list.
The town of Termoli on the Adriatic and a traditional fishing hut called trabuchi (Photo: BBC.com)
With its long history of herding of sheep and goats, agnello and capretto are the main meat dishes– the more tender cuts in the oven and the leftovers in a pasta sauce. The Molisani are very partial in particular to offal; sweetbreads, liver and other organs. A traditional dish is Torcinelli, lamb liver sausages, grilled over the coals. Salami is a big favorite; the most famous being La Signora di Conca Casale and one with an interesting history. From the tiny village of Conca Casale, with just 200 people, this salami was uncharacteristically made from the best cuts of the pig, not the leftovers. The townspeople used it in payment for services they could not otherwise afford, like the mayor, the doctor or the notary. The exact recipe has been handed down for generations and the meat is only minced by hand, giving it a distinct texture. It’s made in limited quantities, only in the winter and aged 6 months.
La Signora di Conca Casale
There’s lots of reasons to travel to this special corner of Italy, just a couple of hours drive from Rome. Be sure not to miss Campane Marinelli in the village of Agnone. It’s the oldest continuously operating bell foundry in the world as well as being Italy’s oldest family business. The company dates back to 1339 and has always been led by the Marinelli family. It is the official provider of bells to the Vatican and produced the bells for the Montecassino Abbey when it was rebuilt after WWII. A visit to the Marinelli company’s museum is a must. Take a tour with a Bell Maestro and learn the fascinating process of production of this historical piece of Molise.
Marinelli Bell Foundry in Agnone (Photo: DEA/M. Borchi/ Getty Images)