Cupano: Choices in Life, Farming and Wine in Montalcino

When Ornella Tondini and Lionel Cousin bought Cupano in 1994, it was a farm used for raising livestock that had been abandoned for 40 years. They knew immediately that the terroir was special for vineyards. First, the rocky soil, which drains quickly, wasn’t found elsewhere in the Brunello di Montalcino zone.
rock soil

Then, since the land falls off the hill in all directions, the vineyards could be planted facing south, east and west with exceptional exposure to air and light. And another advantage…the Ombrone River runs along the western edge of the property.
Ombrone

It also turned out that the land had an interesting geological history since it was once under the sea. Lionel told me about finding the fossilized remains of a whale in the vineyard. This means that the clay soil is mixed with the sandy remains of seashells, whose minerality lends elegance to the wine.

Having had previous careers in Rome and Paris in journalism and filmmaking, the two dove into the life of the farm with as Lionel said, “no knowledge or competence”. It was a dramatic mid-life choice, but they were determined to learn what they needed to know to do the work themselves. They immersed themselves fully in the life of the farm. “We only do this,” Lionel told me. “There is no time for anything else.”
Lionel tractor
When I went for a visit a week ago, I found Ornella in the office where she manages all the administrative and logistical aspects of Cupano and Lionel on the tractor loosening the soil among newly planted vines. He was pleased for Ornella and me to see how recently planted vines were just beginning to bud.
O.L

We walked around through the vineyards in the late afternoon sun. Among the older vines, originally planted in 1997, fava beans were growing riotously between the rows. Later, they will be cut down as left as sovescio, green manure. This natural form of fertilizer replaces animal manure or chemical products in biodynamic agriculture.
fava

The land at Cupano was pristine when Ornella and Lionel bought it. Since iconic Burgundian winegrower Henri Jayer was Lionel’s mentor and guide, he farmed from the beginning with traditional, organic methods. Gradually, he has gone further and adopted principals of biodynamic agriculture. In the cellar, Lionel ferments with native yeasts and adds only a tiny amount of sulfites at bottling.

He and Ornella treasure tradition. They repaired the house so they could live in it, but kept its original character…
house

With a farm table outside that becomes the dining room in warmer weather.
outdoor table

And a simple farm kitchen that was once the stall.
kitchen

While Ornella went back to the office to work, Lionel prepared a simple dinner and talked to me about his philosophy of winemaking. He began by saying, “Italy is a magical place. Its head is in Europe while its feet are in Africa. There is truly magnificent terroir here.”

stove2

He pointed out that French wine, especially Bordeaux, had developed more for commercial reasons related to exporting wine than the actual terroir. Their first key success factor was the rise of the negotiant, who liberated the cellars of the growers annually by buying up the wine and managing sales.

The second was the discovery that the wine tasted better after spending time in small wood barrels, barriques during ship voyages or warehouse storage. The softer tannins of the new wood replaced the harsher tannins of the wine, making it richer, more complex and rounder. These discoveries eventually spread throughout France with rules dating back to Louis XIV and even Henry IV to preserve and manage French forests as sources for wood to make barriques.

He lamented the fact that in the 80s, many Italians rushed to adopt the French tradition of aging in barriques without knowing how to choose barrels. The wrong wood can easily overwhelm the subtleties of terroir. He pointed out that this is especially true for Sangiovese, the native variety used for making Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino, whose fundamental characteristic is vivacious acidity.

Because his goal is to make wine for aging (wine that is meant to stay in the cellar until it reaches its full potential), however, he does use carefully selected barriques. There’s no escaping the fact that he is French and has a strong affinity for the French tradition. As a member of an elite group of winegrowers in Burgundy, who meet annually to compare their wines and methods, he follows the Burgundian tradition of leaving wine “on the lees” for malolactic fermentation and aging in barriques.

As we talked, he acknowledged that fewer and fewer wine drinkers have cellars and a dedication to setting wine aside for aging, but, no matter. He looks at Cupano as a long term project that will outlive him, and he makes wine with aging in mind. He recalled Proust and what a rare pleasure it is to open an aged bottle that brings forth aromas and tastes of the past…memoire.

When we tasted 2010, the newest vintage of Cupano Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, it was still very young. The characteristic acidity and freshness was there, along with the richness brought about by the barriques, but the wine was just beginning to evolve.
Brunello

Leaving the house by the long, cypress lined drive, I stopped by the cellar to pick up bottles of Cupano’s other two wines.

drive

Rosso di Montalcino DOC, made from younger Sangiovese vines, and Ombrone IGT, a Super Tuscan of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Lionel makes them in the same careful way that he makes his Brunello.
Ombrone.Rosso

This visit brought back memories of being at Cupano in the fall of 2013 for the harvest when I was just starting Uncorked In Italy and wanted to make a video that would give some idea of why terroir (both people and place) are so important. It is still fascinating to me that true artisan wines are such a strong reflection not only of land, soil, climate, grape variety, etc., but also of the personality and choices of the winegrower.

Cupano
Località Casigliano
Pod. Centine 31 – 53024 Montalcino

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