The wines of Frank Cornelissen, Etna, Sicily
Revisiting the stunning Magma, MunJebel and Contadino wines from one of Etna's most dedicated winegrowers


I’ve written at length about the remarkable wines of Frank Cornelissen before (pictured above). His first vintage on Mount Etna was 2001, and I remember attending his first tasting in London in 2004. Here was a great chance to catch up with him as he enters his second decade of winegrowing, and taste through a large selection of wines, over lunch at Hibiscus restaurant in London.

2006 was a bit of a turning point for Frank. ‘We had too many plots,’ he said. So he concentrated his holdings, and over the following four vintages the management of the plots was more focused. ‘After 10 years I feel we are starting back to zero. I am now where I want to head with my wines.’ He describes the 2010 vintage, his tenth, as like a ‘rebirth’.

’10 years have passed so fast,’ he says. ‘By the grace of God we have survived. We now have 8 workers and we work everything semi-manually.’ The current vineyard holdings are 11 hectares, and production is 22 000 bottles. 

The style of the wines has changed over this decade. ‘The wines have changed not because of vinifying or philosophy, but because of timing of bottling and accumulation of experience,’ he states. ‘The wines will change in that respect until I die: my goal is not to make a natural wine but a profound wine. So things have to change.’

From the beginning, Frank’s vision was to make the classic Etna wine: blending plots of pure Nerello Mascalese. ‘I started out as a gardner/hobbyist, convinced in my quest for making an absolute terroir wine,’ recalls Frank. ‘Magma equals liquid rock. This concept is still the same after 10 years. But when I started to work in the winery and vineyard full time in 2003, I wanted to have a wine that was approachable. My first wines were extremely intellectual. Rosso del Contadino was born in the desperate [rainy] vintage of 2003, but I liked the idea of a fresher wine. Today the wine is more refined, fine-tuned and focused. Magma is still there, but is bottled a bit earlier and is less intellectual.’

‘I feel my wines are now more profound,’ says Frank. ‘I think I am doing vineyard work better, and yields are even lower. So I have more land but yields are going down.’ With 55 000 vines producing 22 000 bottles, yields are miserly. ‘It is a bit of my craziness. I see too many grapes and put the scissors in, so the wines tend to be concentrated, with presence and personality.’

Frank avoids using any spraying of the vineyards, which makes healthy ventilation critical. He works with albarello (bush vines) trained on a stake, which is needed because of the winds.

One significant change has been with the amphorae that Frank is famous for using for some of his wines. These have now been lined with epoxy resin. Frank was finding that some of the wines were showing enhanced volatile acidity because of bacterial problems, so since 2006 all the amphorae have been lined. In 2004, Magma made in unlined amphorae showed a VA of 0.85. In 2005, in a lined amphora, from a hot vintage, it was 0.6.

All Frank’s wines are made from completely destemmed grapes. He picks some grapes a week early to make a pied a cuve (a starter fermentation) and picks the cleanest of these. Fermentation is in either plastic tubs of 1000 litres or amphorae (for Magma). After fermentation the wines are pressed, some of the gross lees are settled out, and then they are left on their fine lees for the ageing process. Nothing is added at all: not even sulfur dioxide. These would classify as natural wines, but Frank doesn’t use this term. But he does say that ‘naturalness is the passage to make a territorial product.’  

And the vintages? Franks blog gives a good account of all the vintages since he started in 2001 here.

Some of the wines come in different versions. VA stands for Vigne Alte (higher plots); VB stands for Vigne Basse (lower plots); and there is also sometimes a ‘R’ designation. The wines don’t have vintages on the label, but I have indicated these in brackets. This is because some are cross vintage blends.


Rosso del Contadino No 8 (2010)
This was from a very difficult vintage that Frank describes as ‘near to disaster’, and he lost half his crop. Sweet cherryish nose with some complex herbiness and notes of marzipan. Taut, spicy palate with some tannins, grainy structure and a touch of herbiness. Lovely structure here: taut, elegant. 92/100

Rosso del Contadino No 7 (2009)
This is Frank’s best vintage so far. Lovely elegant red cherry fruit with fine spiciness and some sappiness. The palate is vital, lively, spicy and fresh with lovely purity and good acidity. Tannins are grippy but not harsh. There’s an interesting earthiness on the finish. Fantastic. 95/100

MunJebel 7 (2009/10 vintages)
Brooding cherry, herb and earth nose, with hints of wax. Fresh cherry fruit palate is firm with nice fresh acidity. Quite pure and fine with vitality and grippy tannins. Drying finish. A lively wine. 93/100

MunJebel 7 VA (higher plots, 2010)
Really fresh, lively nose with subtly sappy cherry fruit. Fine, fresh and elegant. The palate is bright and fine with nice complexity, great acidity and some grippy structure. Lively and pure. 95/100

MunJebel No 7 10th Anniversary (2010)
This is declassified Magma. Dense, fresh and quite structured with some earthy notes, grippy tannins and red berry and cherry fruit. Savoury, earthy and spice with a taut personality. 93/100

Magma 5R (2006)
From an ungrafted plot at 1000 metres, from a very hot vintage. Pale colour. Sweet, intense nose of cherry fruit. The palate is really rich with immense concentration. Spicy, tannic, warm and precise. Mouthfilling. Incredibly rich, with a lively spicy finish. 94/100

Magma 4VB
Frank doesn’t make the VB Magma anymore: he just uses the highest plots. Sweet, warm, lifted nose with spice, earth and some chocolate. The palate is dense and firm with earthy notes and drying tannins. Grippy finish. Nicely savoury. 92/100

Magma 4VA
Fresh, quite elegant and tannic. Firm with red cherry fruits and some earthy notes. Nice acidity and a grippy finish. Lively and precise: a structured wine. 93/100

Magma 8VA (2009)
Cherry fruit with warm spicy notes on the nose. The palate is warm, rich and intense with nice freshness and spiciness, along with ripe cherry fruit and some structure, as well as a bit of grip. Nice balance here: lovely elegance and structure. Thrilling wine. 96/100

Magma 7VA (2008)
A beautifully balanced vintage has produced a great wine. Aromatic, fresh, elegant cherry fruit nose with some spicy framing. On the palate it is so sweet yet fresh with nice firm, grippy tannins. Real density of flavour and beautiful balance. 96/100

Magma 6VA (2007)
Spicy, herby, earthy, chocolatey nose with hints of treacle. Nicely dense and sweetly fruited with real spicy intensity on the palate. Earthy and quite grippy, showing some evolution. 93/100

MunJebel 7 Bianco (2010)
Nutty and slightly honeyed with some pear and apple notes. Fresh and precise with good acidity. Made in a slightly oxidative style. 90/100

MunJebel 6VA Bianco (2009)
Lively, fresh, citrussy and precise with fine grapefruit notes. Lively and intense with purity and precision. Lovely wine, with some tannic structure, too. 94/100

See also:

An earlier report on the wines of Frank Cornelissen
The wines of COS, Sicily
Mount Etna tasting
The wines of Graci, Etna

Wines tasted 05/11  
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