Monferrato is widely known around the world for the production of excellent wines, which are protected since 1946 by the Consorzio Barbera d’Asti e Vini del Monferrato. This Consortium (which has more than 240 associated wineries) recognizes 9 protected designations and helps to ensure these wines are produced respecting the high standards people expect from them.
The most notable name associated with Monferrato is, without any doubt, Barbera, whose first historic records date back to 1512. This grape variety quickly became a fundamental part of the economy of Monferrato and started being planted even outside the region. In 1798 the Barberawine was an affirmed reality of Northern Italy and a few years later, thanks to the newborn railroad to Genoa, made its way onto the international market with excellent results. To this day, over 30% of the vineyards in Piedmont (43,000 hectares in total) is made up of Barbera grapes. Official recognition (with the name Barbera d’Asti DOC and later Barbera d’Asti DOCG)came much more recently with the two certifications awarded respectively in 1970 and 2008. In 2014 what was once a sub-zone of the Barbera d’Asti DOCG, in particular the area surrounding the town of Nizza Monferrato, was awarded its own independent certification as Nizza DOCG.
The other DOCG wine of Monferrato is Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato, obtained from one of the rarest grape variety of Italy (Ruchè). These grapes were probably planted by French monks during the Middle Ages and found in the Monferrato soil (which is pretty dry) the ideal place to offer an excellent wine, albeit in very limited quantities. As for Barbera, the DOC and DOCG certifications are pretty recent and were awarded respectively in 1987 and 2010.
Other grapes cultivated in Monferrato (but also throughout the rest of Piedmont) led through the years to the rise of many wines, each unique in its own characteristics. Next to classic varieties (Chardonnay, Cabernet…) one can find Freisa, Bonarda, Nebbiolo, Cortese, Dolcetto, Brachetto, Favorita, Erbaluce, Arneis, Malvasia di Schierano, Moscato Bianco and Grignolino. These, in turn, allow producing the following DOC wines: Albugnano, Cortese dell’Alto Monferrato, Dolcetto d’Asti, Freisa d’Asti, Terre Alfieri, Malvasia di Castelnuovo Don Bosco, Loazzolo and Grignolino d’Asti.
The history of Monferrato spans over 4,000 years, starting in the Neolithic period. During the Bronze Age, the area was colonized by Ligurians tribes which settled between the Po river and the Ligurian Alps. These Celtic populations lived in the region for almost a thousand years, until the arrival of Hannibal led local people to war against Rome (218 BCE). The ultimate defeat of Hannibal and Carthage allowed Rome to expand its influence over the whole Italian peninsula, Monferrato included. And it was under Roman rule that these lands, once covered in woodland, were cleared and the first farms started.
The area was split under Augustus into two separate regions: as a natural border, the Po river split the land into Regio IX Liguria (south of the river) and Regio XI Transpadania (north of the river) and as such, they remained until the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476 CE).
The wars which followed the downfall of Rome put the region under the rule of several powers: Ostrogoths at first, followed by Byzantines and Longobards. With the descent of Charlemagne (773 CE), Piedmont became a “province” of the Carolingian Empire.
At the mid 10th century, Northern Italy was under the rule of Berengar II (Margrave of Ivrea). He decided to split Piedmont into four main areas which were assigned to powerful local families: Ansarici (Ivrea), Obertenghi (Tortonese), Aleramici (Monferrato and Vercelli) and Arduinici (Turin).
It was during the Middle Ages that the name Monferrato was born. No documents before this period carry any trace of this name. Legend has it that Aleramo (founder of the Aleramici family) was promised the piece of land he could ride around with a horse in three days. He managed to shoe (ferrare in Italian, frrha in Piedmontese dialect) his horse with a brick (mun in Piedmontese language) and the region he drew was then named Munfrrha, from which Monferrato. This is clearly a legend, thus the real etymology of the toponym is still unknown to this day. It is worth mentioning two of the most interesting hypothesis. The first one dates back to 1493 and was proposed by Galeotto del Carretto who links the name Monferrato to a Saxon city he spells Aysembergo (probably one of the many Eisenberg we can find in Germany nowadays) which means literally Iron Mountain, in Italian Monte di Ferro (Monferrato). Another hypothesis, much more recent and interesting, was recently proposed by Olimpio Musso: he noticed that there was a small village near Grenoble named Montferrat, once center of a shire owned by William, father to Aleramo. When William’s scion came to Italy, they were gifted a piece of land they named as their homeland. This hypothesis is supported by the name the citizen of the French village gave themselves (Monfrinos) which recalls the Piedmontese monfrin.
Whatever the origin of the name, the Aleramici became one of the most important families of Northern Italy. They followed Frederick I Barbarossa in his war against Milan and the following defeat against the Lega Lombarda. William V took part in the Second and Third Crusade and his son William Longsword married Sibylla, Queen of Jerusalem, from which he had a son named Baldwin V who was even king of Jerusalem (for just a few years, since he died when he was only 9). In their homeland, marriages with powerful families from all over Europe (the most important of which was the Palaiologos of Byzantium) allowed the Margraviate to expand and include the independent town of Casale which became the “capital” city of Monferrato.
The downfall of the Margraviate began in the 16th century when the treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis stated that Monferrato was to be ruled by the Gonzaga from Mantua. 17th century was the worst period for the region, with frequent passing of armies and mercenaries. The region was pillaged and ravaged in the context of multiple conflicts between France and Spain and a dreadful plague epidemics depopulated the region in 1630 (the plague Manzoni talk about in I Promessi Sposi).
In 1713, the Duchy of Monferrato entered the possession of the Duchy of Savoia Vittorio Amedeo II and lost forever its independence. The Peace of Utrecht (same year) established the Kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia under the rule of the Savoy family.
When Napoleon came to Italy, the continental part of the Kingdom became a province of the French Empire, while the Savoy retired to Sardinia, unable to return until the Restoration in 1815.
In 1848, after the disastrous defeat in the Battle of Novara, Piedmontese troops retired leaving Monferrato alone against the Austrian army. The citizens of Casale Monferrato managed to fend off the assailant thanks to a heroic resistance led by Carlo Vittorio Morozzo. During the Risorgimento and immediately after, Monferrato contributed with three important personalities: Giovanni Lanza (who pushed for the attack against Rome in 1870), Filippo Mellana and Paolo Onorato Vigliani, the latter both members of the Italian parliament.
World War I marked another turning point for Monferrato, which saw its population decimated by the conflict and a consequent economic regression (a whole generation was destroyed in the “war to end all wars”). It was only in 1932, with the construction of the main aqueduct network (Acquedotto del Monferrato) that the economy started to rise again. Water had always been a problem for Monferrato but this had also been, according to Ugo Cavallero, the reason for the excellent wines produced in the area. Speaking with Mussolini he said: “people of this area can produce a good wine because there is no water”.
After World War II, with the Economic Boom, the Monferrato went back to its former glory, with an incredibly quick industrial development involving concrete production and mechanical industry.
In 2003, the Sacro Monte di Crea, together with other eight Sacred Mountains (Piedmont and Lombardy), was awarded the recognition of UNESCO World Heritage Site.