Lunch with Frank Cornelissen and his fabulous Etna wines

Yesterday’s lunch was special. It was a chance to catch up with Frank Cornelissen (above), a winegrower from Sicily’s Mount Etna, over lunch at Hibiscus.

Frank works as naturally as possible, without using any chemicals in the vineyard – not even the sulfur and copper used by biodynamic and organic growers – and he doesn’t add anything in the winery. But he isn’t part of the natural wine movement. ‘Naturalness is the passage to make a territorial product,’ he says. That is, he’s not natural for the sake of it, but because he believes that working this way will produce the most authentic expressions of the terroirs he works.

I’ll be doing a full write-up soon, but the condensed version is that in the decade that he has been working in Etna, Frank’s wines have changed. They’re now purer and less crazy, and probably a little more conventional. And, if anything, they are better for it. ’10 years have passed so fast,’ he says, describing his new direction as ‘like a rebirth’.

Highlights? I just loved the Rosso del Contadino No. 7, from the 2009 vintage, which Frank describes as his best yet. It’s a fresh, vital, cherry-scented red of real profundity, yet this is the entry level wine in the range. Munjebel No 6 Rosso and No 5 Rosso were also thrilling wines, with life, elegance, texture and structure.

A real highlight was the Munjebel Rosso 7VA, where ‘VA’ stands not for volatile acidity but for Vigne Alte (high plots). It’s incredibly fresh and lively with finesse and elegance.

Of the Magmas, the top of the range, we were lucky enough to try 6. Of these Magma 8VA (2009 vintage) and Magma 7VA (2008 vintage) were thrilling bottles: the peers of any of the world’s great wines. I don’t care how they are made: these are just fantastic, serious wines. They are expensive, but so are most of their peer group!

The food at Hibiscus was really creative. Pictured above is the main dish of wood pigeon served with a pastilla and onion and almond puree topped with pistaccio. Below is a fine cream tart of white asparagus with some candied black olives (sweet, but with a savoury dimension) and vanilla ice cream.

4 comments to Lunch with Frank Cornelissen and his fabulous Etna wines

  • Jamie, I just don’t get it, the man cannot make wine!

  • Jamie Hutchinson

    I don’t think thats fair, Mike.

    As a fellow diner this week (and to be open, an occasional retailer of Contadino), I think some of the wines are unquestionably good with lovely aromatics and real interest on the palate.

    I do find the whites so difficult as to be unenjoyable, and there are also clearly many of the red releases that are not worth the hype/money, but when things go well in the vineyard, I think these can be thrilling.

  • Hi Jamie H.

    I have a high tolerance for the “features” (defects? tates? aromas?) of natural wines, and I am well disposed enough toward them, I try to shut out some of the mystical hype around them and with an open palate I enjoy wines with moderate amounts of brett, VA, oxydation etc.. It is very rare that I come out and be so categoric about a winemaker.

    In this case, it is just too haphazard, if the guy makes so many, er, not just bad wines, but truly infectiously horrible ones, I would not want to play dice and buy one of his supposedly good ones, whose goodness will be as accidental as the badness of the bad ones.

    IMHO there is far too much great wine around to spend any time on Cornelissen, who is a master in creating an image and marketing around him, indeed he can almost hypnotize people into thinking the vinegar they are drinking is delicious.

    There are some natural wine makers (I can think of a dozen or more) that are capable of making good wine consistently, and if they happen to spoil a batch they chuck it out instead of bottling it…

    cheers

    Mike

  • keith prothero

    What was the private room like and how does it compare to the Square? looks about the same size and similar shaped table. Always looking for new offline venues.

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