, watching the backhoe dig out the foundations of his second generation winery in the shadow of the little village church. But before I can ask him why he’s bothering to build a winery that he knows isn’t going to handle his dreams, he adds, “That’s why we bought another cellar. We’ll move into that one eventually. The third one will be right.”
Eventually, in Cornelissen time frames, is about 10 years. It’s all part of a plan he is executing with the frenetic passion of a man running across a burning bridge.
“I’m 51. I think I can do another 25 vintages,” he says, his brow furrowed and jaw tense. “I have to focus and concentrate and cant lose more time. Every ten years around here you get a great vintage, and I can’t blow it.”
“I want to make, if possible,” he continues, “the greatest wine on earth. That is my quest, and I have to focus.”
If you watch Cornelissen’s face, you can see the intensity of thoughts play across it, like clouds casting shadows on the earth, and any sense of hyperbole that you might find in a statement like that gets brushed aside by earnest passion.
Cornelissen is clearly a man on a mission, a mission that hit him like a bolt of lightning thirteen years ago.
Born in Belgium, Cornelissen fell in love with wine as a young man, and eventually began a career as a wine sales representative that led him to the single defining moment of his life: his first taste of a wine made from grapes grown on Sicily’s Mount Etna. Within little more than a year of that first taste of what he believed to be the holy grail of terroir, he had become a winemaker.
Cornelissen began his odyssey armed with a deep and abiding love for Burgundy and the other fine wines of the world, and little else — no formal or even informal training as a winemaker and no plan to speak of, other than a burning desire to pursue the flavor of “liquified rocks” that he tasted in that first sip of Nerello Mascalese.
At first, Cornelissen rented some vineyards on the slopes of the volcano, but starting in 2001, he began purchasing several small vineyard plots. One of these plots may be one of the world’s most unique vineyards — a roughly three-acre plot of own-rooted vines that pre-date the Phylloxera epidemic that wiped out most of Europe’s vineyards. These near 140-year-old vines sit at about 3000 feet of elevation on the flank of Mount Etna. In the winter, they are buried under more than six feet of snow. During the summer they sweat through 100+ degree days, followed by nights that can dip down to below fifty degrees. The scraggly, head-pruned (aka alberello) vines, often anchored to nothing more than a sharp stick driven into the earth next to the vine, sit low to the ground and sink their roots through the shallow soil until they are brought up short by solid, volcanic rock. This is rock that was not so long ago, and may become any day again in the future, molten lava.
And what passes for soil on Etna is essentially more of the same rock, pulverized into tiny microscopic crystals called lapilli that fall from the sky incessantly, covering everything in a fine layer of black sand. Organic matter? Not much to be found here.
Cornelissen’s oldest vines, gnarled and tree-like, often provide only a single bunch of tiny berries, resulting in yields per acre that are so minuscule as to be nearly commercially nonviable.
Cornelissen farms 26 acres of vineyards, spread over the upper elevations of the Northeast slopes of Etna. His farming methods make even biodynamic winegrowing seem luxurious. He adds nothing to his vineyards. No compost, no manure, no water, no copper, no sulfur, no herbicides, nothing. In between his rows and blocks of vineyards he has planted native fruit and nut trees, buckwheat, and wildflowers. Every vine is carefully pruned and managed throughout the growing season, and harvest is done on a vine by vine level, resulting in many multiple passes through the vineyards over the span of days.
Eschewing any and all additions to his wine, including sulfur even at bottling, Cornelissen practices a form of “natural” winemaking in the extreme. The wines are fermented with ambient yeasts either in big plastic tubs out in front of the winery, or in buried terra cotta amphorae lined with epoxy. You won’t find a single wood barrel in the winery.
His white wines (really orange) macerate for weeks, even months, on their skins. All wines are bottled without fining or filtration. As a result both reds and whites have a lot of sediment, and some are just downright cloudy.
This obsessive focus on naturalness shouldn’t be mistaken for a luddite approach to winemaking. Quite the contrary, Cornelissen is obsessed with utilizing technology, but only in ways that doesn’t impact the wine. He disinfects with Ozone: “Working without sulfur requires an absolutely sterile cellar,” and the new winery under construction will be a state-of-the-art gravity flow facility, allowing him to get rid of some pumps. He prefers expensive synthetic corks for all but his Magma bottling because they allow him to “perfectly control the oxygen exchange rate.” The few thousand natural corks he does buy each year for that wine are “biosterilized with beta rays.”
“It’s about absolute attention to detail,” he explains, rather than some throwback to tradition. “I love living in this era,” he continues, “the only difficult thing with this period of time is that you have to make difficult choices. You have to choose what you want to do with your life, and what your expectations are.”
Cornelissen doesn’t hold back from criticism of some of the choices he made when he was starting his journey.
“It takes time, you know,” he says. “I’m only in my thirteenth year. Everyone starts wherever they start. You make the decision to come out here, and you adapt to the place you have come, but you also come from a certain point of view. You take time, and you adapt the way you produce. Eventually it comes down to just two things: the wine, and the territory. Whatever technique you use, you can’t have a fixed procedure for how to make wines. You try things, and if you feel you can express the territory, then you have ended up with what you wanted to achieve.”
I have interpreted the place better and better,” he continues. “So shoot me for having made oxidized wines to start with. I started provocative. But if I analyze my last twelve years, gradually I’ve turned into a producer who has a sensitivity for the soil, someone who is interpreting that in a good — no not a good — in a precise way. Precision. That’s where I want to go.”
But Cornelissen’s plans extend beyond precision, beyond what he will be able to learn and achieve in the twenty-five vintages he hopes to be able to make.
“I have a plan for the next two generations, and what they will be doing,” he says, as he drives us down the narrow streets of his village. “We will have more problems like phylloxera and other diseases, so I am working on trying to reproduce vines from seeds, breeding for grapes that might be resistant to some of these threats.”
“My biggest challenge I think will be to convince our children of the importance and heritage of the land,” he muses. “Right now, I’m just trying to buy as much land as I can. Even if it means not building my cellar and just renting one. Or if I have to build it at the age of eighty, that’s fine. But land you cannot construct. It’s there. If the opportunity is there, it is important to buy.”
Cornelissen painstakingly produces about 2500 cases of wine each year with the help of an assistant, Pepe, and a crew of friends and family during harvest time.
His rosé wine is named Susucaru, which in the local Catanian dialect can mean either and both “they swallowed it” or “they stole it.” This is what his vineyard workers shouted when it came time for Cornelissen’s first harvest and all the grapes had, indeed, been carried off in the night. It is an unusual blend of both red and white grapes, and is bottled and sold as a non-vintage wine, despite being produced from a single harvest. Like many of his bottlings, Cornelissen prefers to label the wine with a sequential number. 2012 was his fifth year of producing Susucaru, so it is Susucaru 5.
“Susucaru is my first wine of the harvest and my most technical wine,” says Cornelissen. “It’s made in an excel spreadsheet. I need to know how much of the aromatic varieties, how much Nerello Mascalese, some ripe, some not so ripe, depending on what happens with the aromatic varieties.”
The bulk of his production is a pale red wine he calls Munjebel, which is 100% Nerello Mascalese from a number of different vineyard sites on Etna, none of which host vines any younger than 50 years old. When I visited, the 2012 still hadn’t completed fermentation, nearly five months after harvest.
Cornelissen also makes a small amount of skin-fermented white (or rather, orange) wine from a blend of indigenous grape varieties, that he bottles under the name Munjebel Bianco.
His crowning achievement, however, is a bottling known as Magma, which comes from that single, ancient vineyard high on the slopes of the volcano.
Interestingly, in 2012 Cornelissen decided to make single vineyard bottlings from several of the sites that normally go into the Munjebel bottling, and he offered me the opportunity to taste them as recently bottled “tank samples.”
2012 was a hot vintage, and the wines achieved a level of ripeness that is somewhat staggering, and, to my palate, perhaps past the point of sanity, but Cornelissen has never been known for his sanity.
I like to say it takes a special breed of madness to push past the traditional borders and bounds of traditional winemaking into the uncharted territory that is capable of yielding pure genius. Cornelissen has been taking the measure of this territory for some time, without having fully mapped its potential. Buying and drinking his wines offers up the equivalent of a ticket to ride with him for a moment into places many wines dare not go because of the high risks of failure.
Not all of Cornelissen’s wines are great. But when they succeed, they are simply breathtaking.
NV (2012) Frank Cornelissen “Susucaru 5” Rosé, Sicily IGT
Palest ruby in the glass, this wine smells of rose petals, red berries, a hint of juniper berries, and wet stones. In the mouth the wine has bright juicy berry and wet chalkboard flavors, and is quite intense, with a cream sherry quality to the finish — a mouthcoating light tannic feel that lingers for a long time. This wine is a co-fermentation of red and white grapes: Malvasia, Muscat Petite Grains, Cattaratto, Chardonnay, and Nerello Mascalese. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $30 click to buy.
2012 Frank Cornelissen “Munjebel Bianco,” Sicily IGT
Medium orange in the glass, this wine smells of wet leaves and orange peels. In the mouth, a lightly tannic texture mixes with wet stones, crushed rocks, bee pollen and dried orange peel flavors. Notes of white flowers and a hint of creaminess linger in the finish. A blend of Coda di Volpe, Grecanico Dorato, Cattaratto, and Carricante. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $45 click to buy.
2011 Frank Cornelissen “Magma,” Etna, Sicily
Light ruby in the glass, this wine smells of crushed herbs, juniper berries, juniper boughs, and crushed berries. In the mouth the wine is nothing short of amazing. An incredible aromatic sweetness suffuses flavors of bright crushed berries, juniper berries, and pulverized rock, all of which seem to be held aloft by a supple, taut fabric of tannin. Bright acidity makes the fruit and mineral flavors all but leap off the palate, and they all linger with incredible length drifting on and on through the finish. Made from 100+ year-old, ungrafted Nerello Mascalese vines grown at 910 meters up the side of Mount Etna. 15.2% alcohol but you’d never know it. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $140 click to buy.
2012 Frank Cornelissen “Chiusa Espagnolo – Barrel Sample,” Etna, Sicily
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich mulberry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth thick powdery tannins wrap around a core of ethereal fruit flavors — a combination of berries and forest floor. The wine has a deep stony character, that melds with earth, and a hint of leather and it sails through a creamy, chalky finish. Almost 17% alcohol but you can’t guess it. 100% Nerello Mascalese. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2012 Frank Cornelissen “Vigne Alte – Barrel Sample,” Etna, Sicily
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of mulberries, and forest floor. In the mouth powdered rock, supple suede-like tannins and rich and expansive berry flavors are massive in the mouth, and expansive. The wine comes across as slightly high octane — it’s actually 17% alcohol — but surprisingly the wine doesn’t offer heat on the finish. Grippy tannins. 100% Nerello Mascalese. Score: around 9.
2012 Frank Cornelissen “Monte Cola – Barrel Sample,” Etna, Sicily
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich berry and brown sugar aromas. In the mouth this wine has broad forest floor and berry flavors, and less of the vibrating core of mineral at the heart of the wine, and more thick creamy tannins. Contains roughly 4 grams of residual sugar and clocks in at a whopping 17.4% alcohol. According to Cornelissen “It’s like a goddamn port with a sense of wine. It’s a one off, I hate saying this…” Score: around 9.
In addition to the above wines, Cornelissen produces a red table wine called Contadino, which is a blend of both red and white grapes. He has also been known to occasionally make a bottling of Magma Bianco and a sparkling version of the Contadino wine called Campagne, neither of which I have tasted.