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Revisiting the natural wines of Frank Cornelisson, from Sicily's Mount Etna

Website: www.frankcornelissen.it

UK agent: David Harvey, Sous l'Nez, Soloman's Yard, 2a Brenthouse Road, London E9 6QG, Tel: +44 (0)7977 939680, soulnez@googlemail.com

I’ve written before about the remarkable wines made by Frank Cornelissen in Sicily’s upcoming wine region of Mount Etna (read this write-up, now a few years old, for the full background). Cornelissen takes naturalness to an extreme, but his wines are utterly compelling. Here’s how he explains the underlying motivation for his hands-off approach:

“Our farming philosophy is based on our acceptance of the fact that man will never be able to understand nature's full complexity and interactions. We therefore choose to concentrate on observing and learning the movements of Mother Earth in her various energetic and cosmic passages and prefer to follow her indications as to what to do, instead of deciding ourselves. Consequently this has taken us to avoiding all possible interventions on the land we cultivate, including any treatments, whether chemical, organic, or biodynamic, as these are all a mere reflection of the inability of man to accept nature as she is and will be. “

Frank’s viticultural approach is the most extreme of all. He avoids any sorts of spraying, including the sulfur and copper remedies used by organic and biodynamic growers. He’s managed to do this even in difficult vintages such as 2004 and 2005, although 2002 and 2003 were so difficult that some treatments were needed to save the crop. The estate is 12 hectares, with 8.5 hectares of vineyards. The vines are free standing bush vines (known here as alberello; in France this is referred to as gobelet). The rest of the estate consists of olive, fruit and nut trees as well as brush. Frank doesn’t like the idea of monoculture, so interplants the vines with various local fruits and wheat. He planted a new vineyard a few years ago with ungrafted cuttings from existing old vines on the estate, and these vines were planted at lower density to allow cultivation of other plants between the vines. Yields are tiny, averaging 300 g per vine. The vines are manicured, with great attention being taken to ensure the grapes are healthy, and a long, late harvest consisting of multiple passes through the vineyard in late October to mid November.

Winemaking is crazy, but it works. Depending on the wine, fermentation takes place either in plastic tanks outside, or terracotta amphorae (known as giarre) buried up to their necks in crushed volcanic rock. Either way, both reds and whites have a long maceration on skins. ‘The skins, seeds and nascent wine remain unseparated during the entire transformation, maintaining a cosmic link, and enabling extraction of all possible aromas of soil and territory,’ says Frank. After fermentation, the wines are basket pressed and are then returned to amphorae  for a long maturation.

No additions at all are made during the winemaking process. Because no SO2 is added, Frank advises keeping the wine below 16 °C during transport and storage, and not decanting it.

Frank also has a ‘social’ pricing structure. Paradoxically, adding nothing to the vineyard or during the winemaking process costs a lot of money. This means that the wines are quite expensive. Initially MunJebel, the second label, was a bit too expensive, so Frank made it cheaper and increased the price of the top wine, Magma. The third wine in the stable is the Rosso del Contadino, which is more affordable, but still delicious. It’s a field blend of white and red varieties including Carricante, Inzolia, Catarratto, Nerello Mascalese, Alicante and Nerello Cappuccio. It’s a cloudy wine, because it is bottled after the 'noble lees' in the amphora are stirred. 

Rosso del Contadino No 4 (2006)
15% alcohol. Beautifully pure, focused sweet red fruits nose is alluring and almost impossibly complex, with notes of spice, herbs, leather, earth and tea. The palate is complex and spicy with amazing presence in the mouth. Spicy and earthy, with elegant textured fruit and a dry finish. Amazing stuff, and incredible considering that this is Frank’s cheapest wine! 95/100

Rosso del Contadino No 5 (2007 vintage)
Fresh, focused cherry fruit nose with some spiciness. Elegant and a bit sappy. The palate is smooth, elegant and fresh with some supple red fruits. A lovely fresh style. 91/100

MunJebel Bianco No 3 (2006)
This wine used to be called Mongibello, but with this vintage changed its name to Munjebel. It’s a blend of Grecanico Dorato, Coda di Volpe, Carricante and Cattaratto. Cloudy yellow colour. Amazingly sweet aromatic nose with complex notes of tangerine, herb, vanilla and spice. The palate is quite savoury with lovely complexity, high acidity and tannin, yet also delicious warmth and sweetness of fruit. Amazing length. A remarkable wine. 94/100

MunJebel Bianco No 4 (2007)
Cloudy orange colour. Fantastic nose: tight and herby with orange and spice characters. Quite sweet but complex. The palate is tight with some structure and nice herbiness as well as sweet fruit. Lovely. 92/100

MunJebel Rosso No 3 (2006)
Varietal N
erello Mascalese; 15% alcohol. Brooding sweet earthy fruit on the nose with some tea notes. The dense palate has lovely freshness as well as bold, sweet fruit. There’s structure here, and it finishes quite tight. A bold earthy style. 93/100

MunJebel Rosso No 4 (2006/7)
Pale colour. Fresh, bright fruit on the nose with sweet cherries to the fore. Baked cherry pie character. The palate is smooth and elegant with lovely earthy spiciness and great complexity. Finishes earthy and tannic. 93/100

Magma R No 5 (2006)
This is Frank’s top wine. Complex earthy, spicy nose. Brooding with lifted notes of plum and spice, wood and earth, and a hint of raisins. The palate is sweet, a bit like a tawny port, with lovely spicy, earthy structure. Elegant with an almost eternal finish. Tremendously complex. 95/100  

See a more recent review of these wines here

Wines tasted 05/08  
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