As I know some of you have seen on social media, or know through other means, ... but the lovely, gentle, founder, winemaker of Cupano, Lionel Cousin, died peacefully at Cupano in April.
Cupano is in good hands, with Ornella, his wife, and three daughters to assist, as well as Andrea Polidoro, who fell in love with Cupano, when working in Bordeaux for two leading wine journalists, who also adored Cupano, rating it alongside Sassicaia in blind tastings. It was enough for Andrea to give up his career in the press and work in the vineyard and cellar, attentively learning from Lionel about pruning, winemaking, and blending, and all the things Lionel did so well. So, we know Cupano is good hands.
Cupano, and Lionel has meant a lot to me, and Swig over the years. It's not easy as a fledgling wine importer to take on classics, the great, famous names. So we have to look out for the new; those producers that show early promise, or a renewed vision, as one generation takes over from another. It suits me. So, when Cupano came along, no one knew it, but I was so excited by what I has tasted, that I took a punt, knowing you were there behind me. It has taken 15 years, but I would say that Cupano is now regarded as one of the top producers in Montalcino, and Italy. At times, they didn't sell all their wine, as much as we lapped it up, and it put pressure on a young business like theirs needing cash. But gradually, wine lovers around the world have realised how beautiful are Lionel's wine, and for the past couple of years they have sold out of their Brunello, which much have been a source of much satisfaction and comfort to Lionel and Ornella, after all the toil.
I first met Lionel in 2005 at a tasting of the consorzio of Brunello di Montalcino producers in London. As usual, I determined to taste every wine in the room, but when I got to the last table, which happened to be Cupano, the bottle was empty. It was the end of the afternoon, and Jancis Robinson was talking to Lionel. I reached over and picked up the bottle, and looked at its striking painting of a cypress tree. I tilted my head back, turned the bottle upside down until a drop ran on to the tip of my tongue. Pow! I was the most delicious wine I tried all day, and I got that just from a drop! I waited for Jancis and others to depart and grabbed my chance to say hi to this really rather lovely looking gentleman. Lionel always wore a smile. I said, without knowing the price, may I please buy 600 bottles? I felt confident I could persuade customers to engage with this gorgeous wine. It was the 2001 vintage. Lionel said me to they only made 600 bottles. He had a lovely gentle French accent. He was always soft spoken, lyrical note that translated to from his smile, often with a little laugh at the end. I said how about 300? He said no, it’s too much. I asked, how about 240? He said there have been some faxes coming through from the Americans and they’ll need to check them before they can say. I invited Lionel and his wife, Ornella, to meet me at our office warehouse the next day. They accepted and arrived in a taxi at our rather scraggy looking place in Chiswick. We had a nice chat and agreed to meet in Tuscany soon after. I returned the two of them sitting squashed in the front of our Citroen van, to their hotel in Mayfair. We met at their farmhouse, and we got our first shipment of 240 bottles, and the rest is history.
Actually, I could go on. It was a very special relationship between them and us, and a lot of of friendship and mutual support through thick and thin - both of us as fledling businesses. It's included fun times in Verona, drinking aperos in Piazza Erbe, and gelato late at night, and a spontaeneous trip tio Montova. On one particularly memorable evening we took a vertical of vintages of both Brunello and Rosso that they’d opened for their new American importer at the Verona wine fair. Cupano were just becoming celebrated in some of Italy’s top restaurants, so it was very exciting to walk into Bottega del Vini, the most popular wine bar/restaurant in Verona, that’s absolutely packed full of world’s wine trade during the fair. Atable has to be booked a year in advance. But for us, that night, the maitre d’ parted the waves of people driinking Italy's finest wines, and led us to the best table in the joint with me carrying a box of Cupano on each shoulder. The wines tasted the best they’d ever tasted, and the older Rosso’s were nearly indistinguishable from the equivalent vintage of Brunello. I remember that clearly, and sipping again and again. The other thing I learned that night is that getting slowly drunk on Cupano is just about the pleasantest way you can do it. You start smiling and have another sip. Also, I’ve never had a hangover on Cupano.
Lionel grew up in the area of Bordeaux. His father was a professor and they moved to Paris. Lionel left school as young teenager and his father never noticed, and he took a job as a barrow boy in Les Halles. Someone offered Lionel the chance to go filming in Africa, and he went on this amazing life adventure that could fill a book. He became a very able cinematographer and made documentaries and films in far flung places, including two of the civil wars in Chad, and this is where he met Ornella, a journalist. They kept a small bolthole in Tuscany, with no electricity, and enjoyed buying wine from the area around Camigliano. And it’s here that they bought land in the South Western corner of Montalcino that hadn’t been farmed in over a hundred and fifty years, and had never seen chemicals. They decided then never to use them. It went well with the philosophy of Lionel’s friend, and wine mentor, Henri Jayer, a Burgundian winemaker of great repute. Jayer guided Lionel in the way of vineyards and wine and this comes through in some way in the wines of Cupano. I think even more so latterly, you can taste the beauty and gentleness, a sort of effortless, and a soulfulness. This will have been helped by the vines getting older, but also by just a greater understanding of balance in all the winemaking processes. Having said that, it's hard to imagine a more beautiful wine than the first two, 2001, and the 2002, which was a triumph of intense effort over adversity, and terrible weather.
Our love goes out to Ornella, Orsa, his daughter, and Ornell's other two daughters, and Andrea, and the team at Cupano.
Thanks for reading, if you've got this far, and thanks for supporting and enjoying Cupano.