James Halliday reflects on the achievements of Cupitt’s Winery
Rosie Cupitt has a sense of humour coupled with unassuming modesty, making the establishment and achievements of Cupitt’s Winery seem easy to the point of inevitability. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ll skip from the start to today, with Cupitt’s making 12 varietal wines from six regions in three states, all in an 80-tonne winery with a 120-seat restaurant complex.
Anyone who has had contact with one of Australia’s 2000-plus small winery operations will know how fraught it is to decide when to pick the grapes. Is the weather about to change for better or worse? Have the grapes reached the desired baume? Is the acidity still sufficient? Does the grapevine canopy allow some flexibility, or is it saying the grapes need to be picked regardless? Neighbours are consulted and much time is spent walking up and down rows looking for signs of downy or powdery mildew. But that’s not all. You have to decide on a picking sequence for blocks and varieties, be sure the tank and barrel capacity is sufficient, and the press is always a traffic jam, particularly when the yield is higher than expected. That can be hard enough for one site, let alone six.
So, back to the beginning… Rosie was a qualified horticulturist with a landscaping business. She and husband Griff lived in Bowral and ran sheep and cattle. They bought a hotel in town, which prompted Rosie to enrol in the wine science degree at Charles Sturt University.
Time passed, and they decided to sell the hotel and grazing property, ‘retiring’ to their holiday home at Narrawallee on the Shoalhaven Coast. Rosie had an itch to plant some vines to make wine for home consumption, while Griff wanted to run a few cattle. They found a property between Milton and Ulladulla, its volcanic soils suited to both purposes, with a circa-1851 stone building also appealing.
Rosie had set about building a network of wine and Slow Foodorientated friends in France and Italy. The geographic epicentres of her European travels were the Loire Valley for wine and Piedmont for Slow Food and, of course, wine too.
She met Alphonse Mellot of Domaine de la Moussiere 20 years ago and has visited his Domaine every year since. Even though son Tom spent a vintage there in 2013, Rosie has not made wine at the Domaine – although that’s not the official story. “Alphonse tells everyone I have [made wine there] when he introduces me to people. I feel like one of the family,” she says.
Rosie did, however, work a vintage at Touraine in 2003, also in the Loire Valley, with Philippe Oudin. “He needed the help,” she says. “It was hands-on and frantic, as I was the only other winemaker with him.”
Rosie’s involvement with Slow Food made Piedmont an annual visit, which led to making invaluable contacts who connected her with winemakers, including some household names. Others included Roberto Damonte of Malvera, whose father was the first to revive the fortune of arneis, a variety Rosie is particularly fond of drinking as well as making.
So, how has she achieved such miracles? The winery and restaurant came on stream in 2007. Rosie had crushed 12 tonnes that year and, except for untrained help during vinification, she did it alone. When the restaurant opened in June that year, they gave the wine away for several weeks as the liquor licence hadn’t come through.
She may have trodden where angels fear to tread, but has made it all look easy. Between the vineyards, her travel time, each way, to Orange is five hours, Hilltops is four and a half, and a mere two hours to Wamboin, near Canberra.
A string of early vintages leading up to 2017 – which was very late and cool – compressed the picking windows and distorted the theoretical progression from early- to late-ripening grapes. And vintages such as 2016, which had larger-than-usual crops, seemed to ripen at the same time, sending winemakers in Eastern Australia on a desperate search for additional fermentation and storage equipment.
Handing over winemaking responsibilities to 36-year-old son Wally was one thing. It took another two years for him to also co-ordinate the intake of grapes for vintage and vineyard inspections through the growing season. The success of the handover is best measured by Cupitt’s recognition as one of the 10 Dark Horses in the 2018 Halliday Wine Companion. This title is awarded to wineries breaking through the starting gates, marking the first time they have received five stars.
The Cuppitt’s Winery range is from Hilltops (riesling, pinot noir rosé, shiraz, merlot, nebbiolo, cabernet sauvignon, viognier), Canberra (pinot gris, pinot noir), Orange (sauvignon blanc, arneis) and Shoalhaven Coast (sauvignon blanc).
And what of the future? The plan is for their crush to increase to 100 tonnes, in large measure to cover the gap between production and demand. Running out of stock is a real concern if your substantial restaurant doesn’t have some of the most popular vintages available. The same applies for cellar door and the winery’s 650 wine club members, so 90 per cent of the wines sell out before the next vintage is ready for release.
Since handing over management of winery operations to
Wally, Rosie has diversified. After spending some of her time in France and Italy undertaking cheesemaking courses, she now operates a commercial fromagerie. Rosie mainly makes goat’s milk cheese, but also uses some cow’s milk for her brie and comté. The cheeses are sold from the cellar door, restaurant and a couple of other outlets. “It’s a natural progression from winemaking as there’s lots of microbiology and chemistry in both of these fermentation processes that are similar, and it’s still quite a physical occupation,” Rosie says.
A string of early vintages leading up to 2017, which was very late and cool, compressed the picking windows and distorted the theoretical progression from early- to late-ripening grapes.
Rosie Cupitt with sons Wally (left) and Tom.