Just last week I was presented with the opportunity to stock these remarkable wines from an even more remarkable person – Frank Cornelissen. These natural wines from Mount Etna are incredibly hard to get your hands on and are produced in very small quantities, which presented us with a very attractive offer, especially when you have access to 200 bottles of the ‘entry-level wines’ and a handful of the large formats at your disposal!
Frank Cornelissen is a Belgian born winemaker who is causing a stir in the Sicilian wine scene, has begun a new winery on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily that is one of the most unique and unusual projects we’ve yet encountered in the world of natural wine. He began collecting wines with his father, and the first wines he bought were a mixed case of 1972 Domaine de la Romanée Conti. Despite the enormous cost, and as anyone would be – he was hooked. Since then ‘wine has never left me’, he says. Later, he became a wine agent, and talking regularly with winemakers he became interested in the rather philosophical question of what wine actually is. Over 20 years of tasting, he found that he liked wines that were an expression of culture, that is more evolved, and which express the soil more than the fruit. He decided that he wanted wines with a more natural approach and that he’d like to make wines without any treatments in the vineyard, winemaking or bottling.
One day at a restaurant in Sicily someone bought out a sample of wine from Etna. He immediately got in his car and drove round to the winery. Liking what he saw, he rented some vineyards on Etna and made wine in some abandoned sheds. This led to Frank buying an old ungrafted vineyard in 2001, which led to the creation of Magma.
Magma is Frank’s ‘Grand Vin’ it’s a wine that’s made from old Nerello Mascalese vines (50–80 years), from the highest parts of the vineyard. I’ll let Frank describe the vinification.
“The wine is produced in a non-interventionalist way, fermented and aged according to ancient traditions in terracotta vases of approximately 400 litres each, buried in the ground in the cellar and fixed with ground volcanic rock. My aim is to avoid all treatments whatsoever in vineyard, orchard and surroundings, in which I succeeded in 2001. Unfortunately, I had to treat with Bordelaise mix in 2002 one time on June 20th which was, given the wet conditions an unbelievable achievement. [In 2003 another treatment was necessary.] I harvest relatively late between the end of October and early November to obtain beautifully healthy and ripe grapes but avoiding overripe grapes. The yields are about 300 grams per vine, realised early in the growing season by pruning very short. Every grape bunch is tailored and tails are cut away as well as unripe berries are delicately picked out of the bunches… a monk’s job! I refuse to add any sulphur dioxide (SO2) in any aspect of winemaking. I use very long maceration periods until after the malolactic fermentation, in order not to disturb the delicate and complex natural fermentation processes. In this way, the grape/wine mass remains unseparated and complete during the entire transformation process which is important to maintain a cosmic link in order to extract all possible aromas of soil and area. The separation of the skins from the wine is done around April after the wine has finished the malolactic fermentation.’”
Cornelissen’s estate consists of 24 hectares on the north slopes of Mount Etna, of which 13 hectares are old vines in the classic freestanding albarello training system (Gobelet or bush-vine), 9ha of old vines transformed into modern rows with various width, approximately 2 hectares of olive growth and the remainder are fruit trees, vegetables and bush. Although Etna has a tradition in the high-density plantation of vines, they search to reduce monoculture and have interplanted various local fruit varieties and also keep bees to regain a complex ecosystem. The new vineyards are planted without grafts, using a selection of their original, ungrafted vines. The training system used is albarello. Buckwheat is used for rebalancing soils low on organic material without recourse to industrial compost, especially important when preparing the land for a new vineyard plantation. They avoid soil-tilling as much as possible, although this depends on the vintage and the quantity of water over the winter (recovering of the vines after the production cycle).
“I strive to abandon monoculture in order to avoid the classic diseases, and have already intermixed the existing vineyards with various trees and plants,” says Frank. “The newly replanted albarello vineyard was planted directly, with original branches of the pre-phylloxera vines, thus without the grafted genetically engineered rootstock. I decided for a low density for the area’s standard (approximately 4000 plants/hectare) to give better ventilation and the ability to cultivate other plants and vegetables in between the vines.”
As bread is a daily need and the origin of the most nutritious cereals are in Sicily, they were drawn to produce this obvious and classic farming product, abandoned many years ago in the volcanic region. Although the farm horse Asturia died years ago and this project is postponed until they have the time and proper space to work cereals, they continue to grow buckwheat on the land which prepared for planting vineyards, as buckwheat helps regenerate the soil. Frank’s ultimate goal is to evolve towards a self-sustainable agricultural reality based on the trilogy of Mediterranean farming (cereals, olive oil and wine) without exploiting Mother Earth, to produce whilst also returning, evolving towards an equilibrium of the land, which will take a lot of time to achieve.
Today, Frank Cornelissen is one of the most revered and sought-after natural winemakers in the world, making several single vineyard cuvees (including the “Magma” – his Grand Vin) along with multiple blended cuvees: Munjebel Rosso and Bianco “Classico” blends, a series of high-grown bottlings dubbed VA – a blend from Frank’s 3 highest vineyards – (“Vigne Alte”), a crushable field blend dubbed “Susucaru Rosso” (made up of Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Capuccio, Alicante Bouschet, Minella, and Uva Francesca), and of course the rosé/light red blend “Susucaru Rosato”, which, thanks to repeating exposure on television by the rapper/chef Action Bronson, is perhaps the most famous natural wine in the world at this moment in time!