Outside the famous wine regions in Italy, stopping at a random cantina sign when driving in the countryside somewhere is never going to be the best way of finding an interesting winery making good quality wine. There are just too many cantina signs along the roads and many of their wines will be simple and quite ordinary.
Not that there’s anything wrong with simple wines because Italians are not wine snobs and as long as it’s well made and can be bought at low prices this type of wine has its place and is often the vino sfuso that you fill up yourself out of tanks to take home or the vino della casa house wine that you buy by the liter, half liter or quartino in restaurants. We often buy the house wine in restaurants in Italy and Elena’s parents always have very drinkable vino sfuso on their table, but it comes from La Badiola so even the choice of vino sfuso should never be a random decision.
That being said, on one of our trips through the southern Maremma recently we flashed by a winery just below Scarlino that caught our eye for some reason. As we continued on passed the turning, Elena found its website on her cell phone and from both its range of wines and the somewhat unusual and interesting varieties for this area (particularly the two Pinot Grigio wines and the Canaiolo in purezza), the winery piqued our interest sufficiently for us to turn around and drive a couple of miles back.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained as they say and on those occasions when we stop at random and we’re subsequently disappointed we never feel obliged to buy wine and we certainly never go to the trouble of writing articles about our disappointments. We only want to write about wines that we enjoy drinking and like to buy ourselves; wines that represent good value in their price category.
We turned into the drive at the Il Pupillo sign, parked the car and were met by the very charming proprietor and winemaker, Laura Benelli. She welcomed us warmly and then ushered us into her cavernous cellar, tasting room, office and generally chaotic multi-purpose downstairs area and it was like walking into a time capsule from decades past. If she reads this I hope she doesn’t think I’m being rude because on the contrary, it’s a delightful space full of atmosphere. We’re so used to seeing sleek modern cellars and tasting rooms that this provided the perfect old fashioned backdrop for a relaxing and impromptu wine tasting.
Appearances can be deceptive of course and one man’s chaos is another person’s idea of order and efficiency; this is Laura’s domain and it was anything but chaotic. Quite the opposite in fact, she has at her fingertips all of the information we needed about every one of her wines. She is also a qualified sommelier, but more importantly is an experienced winemaker and has decades of harvests behind her so her experience is profound, both in the vineyard and in the cellar where she produces an impressive range of good value wines which I hasten to add are definitely not vino sfuso.
The Il Pupillo story goes back to 1957 when Laura’s father-in-law, Pietro Barberini, planted the first vineyards based purely on his intuition that good wines could be made in the Maremma. In those days the typical family farm in this area produced a bit of everything with the goal of being self-sufficient and selling any surplus.
Wheat, vegetables, fruit, olives and vines were the primary crops and also some livestock, often including the famous Maremma breed of cow. More vines were planted here throughout the 1960s and 1970s and it was one of the earliest wineries to bottle its own label wine in the province of Grosseto. Today, Laura’s husband and two children are actively involved in all aspects of the winery’s operations, a true family business.
The soil of the southern Maremma has none of the galestro clay of Chianti but is rich in various iron based minerals which were mined here over the years resulting in the name given to this part of the Maremma, Colline Metallifere. The top soil in this part of the Maremma is very fertile however, perhaps too fertile in many places to make truly top class wines.
While Il Pupillo may have the atmosphere of a family winery from years past, it is very much up to date in terms of preferring autochthonous grapes and practicing biodiversity in the vineyard. Laura also collaborates with the University of Pisa in determining methods of sustainable farming with natural products and the monitoring of diseases of the vine.
Laura also utilizes sovescio or ‘green manuring’ in the vineyard which involves cultivating specifically chosen plants between the vines to be ploughed under in their green state to replenish the soil and avoid the need for synthetic chemical applications.
The Maremma is an area that lends itself to tourism, being half way between Pisa and Rome and never far from the coastline. It attracts many northern Europeans, particularly Dutch and German tourists and it is these annual visitors who buy a significant percentage of the wines sold by the better estates like Il Pupillo. Minor wineries from less well known areas, even with Tuscan addresses, will always struggle to get onto wine lists in major Italian cities and foreign destinations, but those tourists who arrive by car take back with them a significant amount of Laura’s wines and then re-order directly from their homes in Germany and elsewhere.
Visiting tourists and tastings therefore becomes very important to the sales strategy and Il Pupillo for example provides additional services to pick up groups of tourists in nearby areas and then drop them off again after the tasting, as well as hosting wine and food hospitality events.
We bought the following wines to take home after the tasting, something we always do so we can take our time to judge the wines properly and drink them with food, because the vast majority of Italian wines are made for the dinner table not for the wine bar. Note also that the 'Vivace' wines listed below have a slight fizz to them via the same Charmat method used in Veneto for the production of Prosecco. All of Laura's wines are matured in either stainless steel or concrete.
Fior di Pupillo 2019 - Bianco Toscano IGT
(80% Trebbiano Toscano, 20% Malvasia Bianca Toscana, 12,5 % alcohol)
This is Laura's entry level white wine that includes 20% Malvasia Bianca (Lunga), a grape that was part of the original Chianti blend by Ricasoli. (In fact it was not until 2006 that Chianti Classico eliminated any white grape from the permissible Classico blend).
Pale straw yellow with some white flowers, pear and citrus on the nose. The Malvasia is a delicately aromatic grape with low acidity and blends well with Trebbiano Toscano, which is a grape that in purezza often produces uninteresting wines. Together they combine well here in a straightforward well-made wine that is refreshing and has an attractive hint of sourness on the finish. At 5.50 euros it's very easy to like.
Pupillino Vivace 2019 - Bianco Toscano IGT
(80% Trebbiano Toscano, 20% Malvasia Bianca Toscana, 12 % alcohol)
Same grape combination as the Fior di Pupillo above. This is a slightly deeper yellow with floral notes and tart gooseberry on the nose. There's a slight 'spritz' or fizz on the palate which is very pleasantly refreshing and green apple notes. Another easy drinking summer white wine and a great price at 7 euros.
Pupillino Vivace Rosato 2018 - Toscana IGT
(90% Sangiovese, 10% Ciliegiolo, 13.5% alcohol)
Deep mature peach color with a touch of amber even, perhaps because at almost 3 years old this is getting old for a rosato. Peach aroma on the nose also with a hint of strawberry. On the palate this also has some spritz and is surprisingly quite fully flavored and quite chewy with a dry lingering finish. It pared very well with a lunch of Greek salad and Italian goat cheeses from the Casentino. We liked this wine in its fully mature condition but it's definitely different to young rosato, similar in some ways to a Cerasuolo from Abruzzo that is hardly ever a light rosato type of wine. Good value at 8 euros and we need to compare it with the younger version next time.
Cavolaia 2018 - Toscana IGT
(100% Pinot Bianco, 13% alcohol)
Straw yellow with a fruity aromatic nose of yellow flowers and gorse. Quite full bodied for a Pinot Bianco there are some mineral notes and a pleasant refreshing sourness on the finish. We enjoyed this just as much before dinner as with dinner. A clean, pure wine that is well worth its 9 euros price.
Aura Vivace 2019 - Toscana IGT
(100% Pinot Grigio, 13.5% alcohol)
We didn't recognize this as Pinot Grigio but nonetheless it's a pleasant and somewhat refreshing wine though I could have perhaps done with a little more acidity and zip. Fully priced at 9 euros
Aura 2020 - Toscana IGT
(100% Pinot Grigio, 14.5% alcohol)
Pale lime green in the glass and green apples and a touch of banana on the nose. There's a full, generous Pinot Grigio flavor here and we much preferred this to the Aura Vivace above. Perhaps 2020 was simply a better year in the Maremma for this grape, because it seems a completely different wine with a better acidity profile. There's also a longer finish here leaving just a touch of refreshing bitterness in the mouth. Altogether a very well made wine and this one is good value for 9 euros
Rosso del Pupillo 2019 - Toscana IGT
(50% Sangiovese, 50% Merlot, 13.5% alcohol)
Deep ruby red with a full nose of red fruits. This is a robust flavorful wine that pared extremely well with the classic Tuscan dish Pappa al Pomodoro. We've commented elsewhere that in Italy good red wines are much less common than white wines at a price point below 10 euros so this wine at 7 euros is very good value. The Sangiovese/Merlot combination works well here, the Maremma being an area that has some good recent history with Merlot as the Sangiovese grape fares less well by the sea.
Miraggio 2017 - Toscana IGT
(100% Canaiolo Nero, 14.5% alcohol)
As we mentioned right at the start of this article, this 100% Canaiolo wine was one of the main reasons for stopping and turning around because there are not many wineries that go to the trouble of making a Canaiolo in purezza as it's mostly used as a Chianti blending grape. It has been an underrated grape for years, neglected perhaps because of Merlot's popularity but it seems to be making something of a comeback recently, both by itself and in its traditional role blended with Sangiovese.
The Miraggio has an intensely deep red color becoming much lighter at the rim. Red fruits on the nose and also a touch of licorice. On the palate it's full and round with soft, almost invisible tannins. It's not a heavy wine at all but comes across as quite powerful, requiring paring with some stronger flavored dishes. This is a spectacularly good value wine for 11 euros as the Canaiolo grape is apparently not the easiest variety to keep healthy in the vineyard, requiring more time and effort, and all the other examples we have come across of Canaiolo in purezza tend to be priced north of 20 euros.
La Listrice 2016 - Toscana IGT
(100% Aleatico Nero, 14% alcohol)
Made by the passito method of drying grapes, it has a Maremma porcupine on the label.
We've had several Aleatico passito wines on the island of Elba where it is a wine of some renown. Laura's version here is every bit as good as those and in fact Scarlino is only a few miles across the water from Elba.
For those people whose reference point for sweetish red dessert wines is Port, the main difference is that Aleatico is not a fortified wine so it is lighter with less alcohol and more acidity which makes it a much more refreshing after dinner drink, ideal by itself or with a dolce. Cherries lightly soaked in alcohol is perhaps a decent description but also notes of plums and figs, but that is not to suggest that it is cloying in any way because there is also good acidity present. Notes also of caramelized orange marmalade. Aleatico is never cheap and 28 euros is a very fair price for a half bottle of this quality.
Final thought: Put Il Pupillo on your list for a visit if you ever find yourself half way between Pisa and Rome. These are much better and more interesting wines than you will ever find in an Italian supermarket for these prices. It's also somewhat unusual to see that many of these wines are already sold out according to Laura's website and the grapes for the 2021 wines haven't even been harvested yet, so clearly we're not alone in thinking that Laura's entire range presents excellent value for the quality provided. She must have a very loyal and appreciative group of regular buyers.
Also, it really is a lot of fun visiting unpretentious and very hospitable wineries like this one and we look forward to going back ourselves next time we're in the area.