Filippo Asinari, the man who reinvented Chardonnay - Coppo

Among the many figures in Piedmont’s wine history, Filippo Antonio Asinari di San Marzano is perhaps one of the most important and, at the same time, one of the most unknown.

Who was Filippo Asinari? The answers are many and all true: Marquess of San Marzano and Costigliole d’Asti, noble in the service of the Savoy, dashing colonel in the French Dragoons, successful Napoleonic military officer, refined diplomat, and influential politician of the Restoration. But above all, Filippo Asinari was a true lover of his homeland, the hills of Asti. More precisely, he loved their winemaking vocation, to which he dedicated practically every free moment from his institutional duties and much of his ingenuity.

To the Marquess of San Marzano, Piedmont’s viticulture owes a great deal, much more than has been acknowledged thus far: many of his achievements are still to be placed in the right historical perspective, and others need to be further explored. Casa Coppo also owes a debt to the Marquess: it was he who imported and valorized Chardonnay in the Asti area, which from the 19th century onwards became effectively a “traditional” grape variety of the Piedmont hills. Our Monteriolo is truly a tribute to the Marquess, who had Chardonnay cuttings sent from the world’s best vineyard in France, that of Montrachet, to be planted near Costigliole d’Asti.

But let’s proceed in order.

A Modern Man

If physiognomy had a scientific basis, Filippo Asinari’s portrait would be a case study. Look at him. Among the austere features of his face, his eyes are vivid, smiling, sparkling with a lively and unrestrained yet measured intelligence. The military crosses and medals are on display beneath his elegant but not sumptuous attire. The Marquess is a man born in the 18th century but already a full member of the 19th century, a child of the innovations and modernity with which Napoleon swept away the Ancient Regime.

Napoleonic modernity with which he was quite familiar: in 1796, he was a lieutenant colonel in the Dragoons regiment, then he became a State Councillor and senator, until he was sent to Berlin around 1808 as ambassador of the Empire. A man who, between one diplomatic commitment and another, never missed an opportunity to devote himself to his true passion, viticulture, giving impetus to a rationalization of vineyards and cultivation techniques aimed at raising the quality level of Asti wines. The same principles of rationality and scientificity that Napoleon put at the service of the conquered regions: encyclopedia and musket, study and discipline, military pragmatism and scientific systematics.

The Experimental Winemaker

During the first decade of the 19th century, Filippo Asinari had more time for viticulture. In France, he became acquainted with the great “brands” of the time and fell in love with their wines. He had confidential and professional relationships with Châteaux Margaux, Lafite, Latour, Haut-Brion, and d’Yquem (however!). From them, he had cuttings sent and received instructions on how to work the vines. Thus, in his possessions in Costigliole, a kind of “experimental vineyard” was born: from beyond the Alps came grape varieties that would never again leave the Piedmont hills, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay; but also oenological rarities about which we know little or nothing (and which deserve further attention) such as Bertromlina, Baleran, Gramestia, Grigia, Uva Carne, Uva Scrass, Mossano Nero, Barbarossa, or Slerina.

In addition to Chardonnay, one of the new plantings that would have the most repercussions on Piedmont viticulture was Brachetto, or rather Braquet de Nice Maritima. Imported by Marquess Asinari to Costigliole in the early 19th century, it quickly spread throughout Monferrato, replacing almost everywhere the ancient local Malvasias until it “naturalized” itself as a fully-fledged Piedmontese grape variety.

The Alchemist

Filippo Asinari introduced practices that today we wouldn’t hesitate to call biodynamic. From reading his correspondence, vivid images emerge of “unconventional” viticulture. Who knows what his sharecroppers thought when the Marquess ordered them to dig furrows next to the cuttings to bury hundreds of old shoes? Or to bury the vineyards with horn manure, as if performing a propitiatory rite. In reality – empirically – Filippo Asinari “discovered” how organic materials such as leather and horn could decompose, releasing nitrogen, a revitalizing source for the young plants: Steiner before Steiner.

The Scientist and the Adventurer

Alongside an unorthodox vineyard management, Asinari was a rigorous scientist. From France, he meticulously studied vine planting methodologies, row distances, and pruning. The most important innovations he introduced concerned winemaking. The Marquess was among the first to subject red wines to clarification and sulphuring, processes almost entirely ignored in Restoration Italy, so much so that, 20 years later, Staglieno, Carlo Alberto’s oenologist, strongly advocated their practice, a sign that they had not yet penetrated common usage.

Was it his military nature, the curiosity of the alchemist, or the coolness of the scientist? Who knows what truly drove Asinari in one of his most picturesque ventures. We only know that, in 1819, at the age of 52, he promised himself and the world to demonstrate that Asti wines were capable of withstanding time and long journeys, fighting the criticisms of those who considered them weak and lacking in character. With two barrels of Nebbiolo and two of Barbera, he embarked for Brazil: destination Rio de Janeiro. According to his letters, in 1820 the wine arrived “not only in excellent condition, but in its perfect maturity and of exquisite taste.” Especially the Barbera “had a singular strength combined with the aroma and color of the oldest and most celebrated wines.”

It is beautiful to imagine that on this journey – heroic, crazy, and far-sighted at the same time – Filippo Antonio Asinari di San Marzano summed up all his characteristics: the rational care of the vineyard, experimental agricultural practices, and cutting-edge winemaking. With only one objective: to show the quality of Piedmont wines, opening their doors, two centuries in advance, to the entire world.