Among the many figures in Piedmont’s wine history, Filippo Antonio Asinari of San Marzano is perhaps one of the most important yet least well-known. Filippo Asinari, who was that? There is, in fact, more than one answer: he was Marchese of San Marzano and Costigliole d’Asti, a noble in the service of the royal Savoys, a colonel in the French dragoons, a successful Napoleonic military man, a diplomat, and an important politician of the Restoration. But, above all, Filippo Asinari truly loved the land of his origins, the hills of Asti. Even more precisely, he loved their vinicultural heritage, to which he dedicated practically every bit of his free time, much of his professional commitment, and a large part of his ingenuity.
Piedmont’s wine history owes much to the Marchese of San Marzano, much more than what has been attributed to him. Many of his successes still need to be placed within the right historical perspective, and many others looked into more deeply. Even casa Coppo owes the Marchese something: Asinari imported and developed Chardonnay in the Asti territory. The variety became, to all effects, a “traditional” vine of the Piedmontese hills beginning in the 1800s. Our Monteriolo is a tribute to the Marchese, the man who brought the best French Montrachet vines and planted Chardonnay cuttings in the hills of Costigliole d’Asti.
But let’s look at this in the right order.
Un uomo moderno
If physiognomy had scientific value, then the portrait of Filippo Asinari would be an interesting study. Look at it. He has an austere facial structure, with lively, smiling eyes that hint at a quick, compulsive, yet measured intelligence. The military crosses and medals are on display on an elegant, but not overly sumptuous outfit. The Marchese was born in 1767, but he was already fully part of the 19th century, a man of innovations and modernity with whom Napoleon swept away the Old Regime.
Indeed, he had quite some familiarity with Napoleonic modernity. In 1796, he became colonel of the French dragoons, then council member of the State and Senator, and finally an Ambassador of the Empire when he was invited to Berlin in 1808. Yet, between one diplomatic commitment and the next, he never lost the chance to dedicate himself to his true passion, viticulture. He was driven to raise the qualitative bar through grape varieties and cultivation techniques with wines from the Asti territory. Napoleon used these very same principles in his own service when conquering regions: a veritable encyclopedia and musket-bearer, studious and disciplined, with military pragmatism and scientific orderliness.
Il viticoltore sperimentale
During the first decade of the 19th century, Filippo Asinari had more time to dedicate to viticulture. While in France, he got to know the great labels of the time period and he fell in love with their wines. He had a confidential and professional relationship with Chateaux Margaux, Chateaux Lafite, Chateaux Latour, Chateaux Haut Brion, and Chateaux d’Yquem (not bad!). He requested that they ship him cuttings and directions on how to best cultivate the vines. And so it was that an assortment of “experimental vineyards” were planted in Costigliole. From the other side of the Alps, cuttings arrived among the Piedmontese hills, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay; but also enological rarities of which we know little to nothing at all and that deserve quite a bit more attention, like Bertromlina, Baleran, Gramestia, Grigia, Uva carne, Uva Scrass, Mossano Nero, Barbarossa, and Slerina.
Other than Chardonnay, one of the new vines that would soon have repercussions throughout Piedmont was Brachetto, or Braquet di Nizza Marittima. Imported by the Marchese to Costigliole in the beginning of the first decade in the 1800s, it rapidly diffused in all of Monferrato, nearly pushing out the ancient, local, native variety of black Malvasia, until it eventually became a Piedmontese variety to all extents and purpose.
Filippo Asinari introduced practices that today we would define as biodynamic. Vivid images of an “unconventional” viticulture emerge from the pages of his correspondence. Who knows what his sharecroppers were thinking when he ordered them to dig next to the cuttings and bury hundreds of old shoes? Or to bury the vines with animal horns, almost as though one was performing an ancient rite? In reality—empirically—Filippo Asinari “discovered” how organic material like leather and horns would decompose, leaving nitrogen, a revitalizing nutrient for the plants. He was following Steiner’s rules before Steiner, the founder of biodynamic agriculture, was born.
In addition to unorthodox vineyard management, Asinari was a meticulous scientist. In France, he closely studied the methodologies for planting vines, the distance between cuttings, and pruning. The most important innovations that he introduced to Piedmont were in winemaking. The Marchese was among the first to clarify and add sulfur to red wine, techniques that were practically nonexistent in pre-Restoration Italy; in fact, 20 years later, King Carlo Alberto’s own enologist Staglieno strongly advocated the practices, a sign that they still had not become widely used.
Was it his military character, the curiosity of the alchemist, or the cool calculations of the scientist that pushed Asinari to undertake one of his most adventurous endeavors? We only know that, in 1819 at 52 years old, he promised himself and the world that he would demonstrate how the wines of Asti territory could resist time and long voyages, refuting critics who maintained the wines were weak and had little character. He embarked for Brazil with two barrels of Nebbiolo and two barrels of Barbera. Destination? Rio de Janeiro. According to his letters, in 1820, the wine arrived, “not only in excellent condition, but in its perfect stage of maturity and exquisite taste.” Most of all, Barbera “had a unique, joint strength of aromas and colors that recalled the oldest and most celebrated wines.”
It’s nice to imagine that it was during this voyage — heroic, visionary, and a little bit daring — that Filippo Antonio Asinari of San Marzano acted with all of his multifaceted personality: the rational care for vineyards, the experimental agricultural practices, and avant-garde winemaking. He had just one objective: to show the world the high quality of Piedmontese wines, opening the doors, two centuries early, to wine lovers everywhere.