Unification at Last 

On the 17th of March 1861 the King of Sardinia and Duke of Savoy, Victor Emmanuel II, was declared King of Italy. It was the first time Italy had been united into a single nation state covering most of the peninsula since the sixth century. Victor’s accession came towards the end of the Risorgimento. Though seldom noted, wine played a role in both fueling the drive towards Italian unification and also in the economic and social changes which occurred afterwards.

Saving you a Google search – Risorgimento means ‘Resurgence’, i.e. the resurgence of Italy as a unified state

Italy by the Nineteenth Century

Italian unification was the process whereby the dozen or so smaller Italian states were unified into a homogenous Kingdom of Italy. For over a millennium Italy had been fragmented into many smaller states. The Lombards were the last people to ruler the peninsula in a quasi-unified manner, all the way back in the sixth and seventh centuries and even they had interlopers in the south in the shape of the Byzantines. Thereafter the region fragmented into at times dozens of smaller polities.

The high-water mark of this was during the High Middle Ages when the collapse of the power of the Holy Roman Emperors in Italy saw the north and central parts of the peninsula fragment into many different city states. These included republics like Genoa, Florence and Pisa and duchies like Mantua, Milan, Parma, Urbino and Ferrara. Many of these would survive for several centuries.

There was also outside interference. Between 1494 and 1559 France and Spain had fought the Italian Wars to establish themselves as the pre-eminent power here. Spain emerged victorious, with control of Naples and Sicily in the south and establishing vassal states in Milan and other regions. Yet eventually Spanish power declined and Austria began to replace it as the major outside power in the eighteenth century.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the circumstances which would drive the Risorgimento were in place. There were about a dozen Italian states by then. These included the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the south, the Papal State in central Italy, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Kingdom of Sardinia. The latter was ruled by the forbears of Victor Emmanuel.

The divisions of Italy prior to unification

The divisions of Italy prior to unification | Source

Despite its name, the Kingdom of Sardinia included an extensive amount of territory in north-western Italy as well as the Mediterranean island which it was named after. The capital of the kingdom was actually the city of Turin in the Plain of Lombardy. It was from here that the Italian Risorgimento would be driven and it would involve wine.

Wine and the Risorgimento in Italy  

An oft-forgotten element of the Risorgimento is that it was driven by economic considerations. Historians generally stress the role of a burgeoning romantic nationalism in the 1840s as the primary motive behind calls for Italian unity. And this is true to an extent. The men who led the unification effort were indeed nationalists who looked back to the glory days of the Roman Empire. But they were also responding to very present economic concerns.

One of these surrounded restrictions on wine exports. Austria controlled the Veneto region of Italy and further west into the Plain of Lombardy and Milan in the 1820s and 1830s. From here high tariffs were introduced on the import of wine from other parts of Italy into Austria in the 1840s. The goal was to protect the Austrian wine industry, centered on the Tokay-producing regions of Hungary. This was done by making Italian wines uncompetitive on the Austrian market.

Quick hitter – Austria was one of Europe’s great powers at the time. It not only controlled Austria and parts of northern Italy, but Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia and much of the Balkans in places like Croatia and Bosnia. It even extended as far east as what is now the western part of Ukraine
All of this upset the winemakers of the Kingdom of Sardinia greatly. There was a thriving wine industry here in in the 1840s in a region straddling the border of France and Italy. Indeed Giuseppe Garibaldi, an Italian general in service to the Kingdom of Sardinia, was himself a viticulturist and wine-producer in the Piedmont region. Garibaldi and others like him were deeply disconcerted by the Austria tariffs. It hurt their bottom line and in doing so created immense antipathy towards the Austrians in the 1840s.
Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–1882), leader of Italian unification and winemaker.

Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–1882), leader of Italian unification and winemaker. | Source

All this boiled over in 1848, the so-called ‘springtime of the people’, a series of revolutions that sprung across Europe early that year. In Italy these manifested as a war between Sardinia and several other Italian states against Austria. This proved inconclusive and in the early 1850s Garibaldi’s main fight turned the combating the oidium fungus in Italy, leading a campaign to spray vineyards with sulfur to fend off the disease.

However, in 1859 he led a new war against the Austrians on Sardinia’s behalf with French aid. This time it was much more successful. Franco-Sardinian victory saw Sardinia annex Milan and other parts of the Plain of Lombardy. Tuscany and a number of other smaller states then agreed to unite with Sardinia into the Kingdom of Italy. Finally, in 1861 Victor Emmanuel became the first monarch of a united Italy. A small number of wars followed over the next ten years to add further territory, but the Risorgimento was largely completed in 1861. Wine and the wine tariffs imposed by Austria in the 1840s had played a not inconsiderable role in it.

The Unification of Italy, Reform of Landholding and Viticulture

Unification also brought changes to the Italian wine industry. Back in the era of the Renaissance in the fifteenth century Italian wine had been a delicacy around the Mediterranean. But the industry had suffered enormously ever since. In large part this was owing to rampant overpopulation across Italy and the proliferation of small farms with peasant landholders. These barely eked out an existence on their allotments and what wine they produced was generally of a substandard quality.

Even as the Risorgimento was occurring there were efforts to improve how vineyards were managed and grapes grown across the peninsula, notably by reducing the number of vines to lower output but make it of a better quality. Further land reforms and changes in agricultural practices followed unification as ideas which the Savoyards of the northwest had about agriculture were imposed across the country.

In many ways these reforms to landholding and agriculture had appalling consequences. They led to a growing wave of migration from Italy as smallholding became unsustainable. However, those that did remain behind were often able to acquire larger farms on which new types of agriculture were introduced.

Over fifteen million people would leave Italy between 1861 and 1920. Most headed for the United States and Argentina to create one of the largest diasporas in human history.

Vineyards were organized differently to produce better quality grapes. In the process there was a renewal of the Italian wine sector, with Chiantis from Tuscany, in particular, acquiring a good reputation again by the end of the nineteenth century. As such, wine not only contributed to the outbreak of the wars of Italian unification in the 1840s, but the Risorgimento brought with it changes to the Italian wine industry thereafter.

Further Reading:

‘Italy’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

Julien Chaisse, Fernando Dias Simoes and Danny Friedmann (eds.), Wine Law and Policy: From National Terroirs to a Global Market (Leiden, 2021).

Hugh Johnson, Vintage: The Story of Wine (London, 1989).

Andrea Viotti, Garibaldi: The Revolutionary and His Men (Littlehampton, 1979).

On this Day

2 June 1882 – On in this day in 1882 Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Piedmontese general who led the unification of Italy between the late 1840s and the 1860s, died in Capera in the Kingdom of Italy. Garibaldi had orchestrated a series of victories over Austria and its territories in northern Italy between 1848 and 1866. These allowed for the Kingdom of Sardinia to unite the Italian states into a unified Kingdom of Italy.

What is nearly always overlooked is that Garibaldi was a winemaker himself and featured prominently in efforts to stop the spread of the oidium fungi to Italian vineyards by spraying them with sulfur in the 1850s.

Wine also played a role in the outbreak of the wars between Sardinia and Austria. Efforts by the government in Vienna to restrict the import of Italian wines into Austria had hurt the Italian economy in the 1840s. It was partly in response to this that the First Italian War of Independence broke out in 1848. Hence, wine played its own small part in the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century.[1]


[1] Hugh Johnson, Vintage: The Story of Wine (London, 1989), chapter 39; Andrea Viotti, Garibaldi: The Revolutionary and His Men (Littlehampton, 1979).

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Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: February 29, 2024Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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