On many levels Frank Cornelissen is an enigma. Former wine merchant turned winemaker, Belgian born Cornelissen now farms vines on Sicily, making wines from various different territories around Mount Etna: “Lava flows, some fruit trees – it’s wild place,” he tells me. Renowned as one of the leading lights of the ‘natural wine’ philosophy he has planted his vines on their own roots (not Phyloxerra-resistant rootstocks), uses no chemicals, uses no sulphur and employs only wild yeasts. As he puts it, “I’m trying to make wines with nothing added – only grapes.”
Cornelissen is an intense character, given to rather dogmatic statements and seemingly utterly self-confident. During the course of a long tasting and dinner with him, long periods of silence were broken only when direct questions were put to him, and over four or five hours, he addressed not a single question to me. Whilst most winemakers are keen to hear your impressions of their wines, Cornelissen seems detached, remote, as if his mind is somewhere else.
I found it difficult to connect with Frank Cornelissen, but in many ways that is not surprising – certainly not when you know his wines. They too have a singular character. Aged in amphorae, they garner almost as much damning criticism as they do fervent praise. The deep, orange-coloured and cloudy whites and the wild, confusingly named reds, are true vins de meditation. The basic template for these wines is that of the achingly trendy natural wine ‘movement’, but whilst a good proportion of those do not convince, by and large Cornelissen’s do.
In fact it is the 10th anniversary of Frank Cornelissen wines, and he cites a trip to the former Soviet state of Georgia as his earliest inspiration to make wine: where he found some wines that “touched my soul.” After 10 years he says he feels he has “reached the starting point.” Over that decade he says he has “learned and changed,” by bottling earlier for example, but never fundamentally changing the style that so many people find hard to come to terms with – “cloudy wines with odd colours,” as he puts it.
Cornelissen says he aims for “natural density,” in his wines, “not wrapped in anything.” He wants his wines to reflect part of his cultural heritage too (“mountain climber, food lover”), and importantly perhaps, that sense of detachment comes through again: “I don’t like looking at things the way other people do – I am not blind. I have my own ideas.”
Back in 2001 he bought old vineyards, and immediately felt at one with the heritage of the people there: “the miles and miles of hand-built stone walls make me feel very at home.” So too do the porcini and truffles he finds amongst his vineyards, and the olive trees. “I was born a impatient,” he tells me, “I’m a modern technology boy so this has been great for me – everything in winemaking is very, very slow.”
Cornelissen’s wines are classified as Vinos da Tavola, with many of his plots outside the DOC Etna area. The vineyards he bought are now 60 years old. His initial half hectare has grown to 10.5ha, but he says that figure is still growing. Though he has always farmed organically, he has never had certification. But that is changing too: “Now I’m applying for all the certificates I can get,” he tells me. “Organic in various territories, ISO 9001, all so I can relax when talking to customers who always want to know about it, and just talk about the wine.”
Another reason he cites is that his business now has eight staff “So I have to make sure all the paperwork and stamps are there – I don’t really care how rigorous the certifying bodies are,” he says, “because I will control and ensure that – all they give me is the piece of paper.”
Cornelissen’s wines are not perfect. Some do little for me. But many are luminously brilliant. There is an honesty and conviction to the wines that expresses the essence of the man. The path he is treading is one on which he is being joined by more and more winemakers around the world, but Cornelissen marches to his own beat. His wines have a raw energy that can, and does indeed, touch the soul.
Frank Cornelissen was in Edinburgh with his Scottish agent, Zubair Mohamed of Raeburn Fine Wines, and the prices quoted here are Raeburn’s – though note the wines are in very limited supply. See all UK stockists of Frank Cornelissen wines on wine-searcher. The naming of the wines can seem as enigmatic as the man. The wines are released with edition numbers instead of, sometimes as well as, vintage dates. Some wines are a blend of more than one vintage. Also, some wines are indicated as “VA” on the labels, an indication that they come from Vigne Alte, Cornelissen’s preferred plots at an altitude of around 750-1000 metres.
Frank Cornelissen, Munjebel Bianco 7 2010, Italy
The white Munjebel is a blend that changes subtly for each cuvée, but is based on Carricante, Grecanico, Dorato and Coda di Volpe. Hay, salt and bruised apple fruit. There’s a bit of rosy apple freshness in there too. Intriguing Umami character. Saline in the mouth, with a thick texture and that yeasty note to the tart, crab apple fruit. Lovely acidity and long. 91/100. £25.00
Frank Cornelissen, Munjebel Bianco 6 VA 2009, Italy
Much cloudier, big, sour lemon and apple nose, with that saltiness again, a smoother take on the style, with a certain juiciness but that slate and stone minerality against the lemon rind. 90/100. £22.99
Frank Cornelissen, Munjebel Bianco 4 2007, Italy
Quite an orange/umber colour. This seems dry and herby, with a certain orange oil character and intriguing smoke and mineral/slate notes. Wonderfully dry and sour, lemon pith and spice, but terrific length. 91/100. £25.00
Frank Cornelissen, Contadino Rosso 8 2010, Italy
Field blend, mostly Nerello Mascalese, also Alicante Bouschet, Uva Francesa, and a small percent of white grapes – softens the wine a little. Lovely pale colour, beetroot and vegetal rhubarb qualities, but that stone and asphalt character. No fruit here that I can discern. The palate has a huge, dry presence, but fruit still shy: some chicory and liquorice, and a fine, dry medium body. This is a tank sample. 89/100. £17.50
Frank Cornelissen, Contadino Rosso 7 2009, Italy
Fabulous nose, hugely fragrant, with delicious florality and pure cherry fruit. The palate has delightful purity – a shimmering, searing acidity at its core and the tannins really very fine and that beautiful acidity. 92/100. £16.49
Frank Cornelissen, Contadino Rosso 4 2006, Italy
Much meatier and more full, with a gloriously earthy character, but there’s real fruit beneath: some red plum, some fresh pomegranate notes. The palate has that wonderful freshness. That leafiness and earthiness comes through, but it stays light and full of energy. 93/100. £15.75
Frank Cornelissen, Munjebel Rosso 7 2009/10, Italy
The Munjebel Rosso is made from Nerello Mascalese. A very clean aromatic profile, very mineral and sinewy, but there’s a certain charm to the cherry fruit. The palate has lovely texture and amazing cherry density. Long, super fine and beautiful. 94/100. £29.50
Frank Cornelissen, Munjebel Rosso 7 VA 2010, Italy
Similar nose, a little more dense, a little more earthy but refined, with a graphite note. Really crisp on the palate, and the acidity fresh and vital. 93/100. £34.00
Frank Cornelissen, Munjebel Rosso 6 2008/2009, Italy
Gorgeous cherry and leaf. The palate has huge concentration, with amazing edge of acidity, this really is all about, the texture, the enveloping smoky richness without any hint of ostentation. 94/100. £27.99
Frank Cornelissen, Munjebel Rosso 4 2006/2007, Italy
Plenty of smoky quality here, with a cherry and raspberry freshness, a warm, gently earthy and tobacco-infused. There’s some warm orange oil, lots of smokily dark fruit and good length. 92/100. £27.99
Frank Cornelissen, Magma Rosso 8 VA 2009, Italy
Nerello Mascalese again, but the Magma comes from ungrafted vines, planted at 1000 metres. This top wine is declassified if it does not reach the right quality level, as it was in 2005 for example. Hugely deep and muscular density, immediately liquoricy and tightly aromatic, with caraway seed but also violet notes. The palate has a wonderful, essential oil density with the cherry purity of the fruit still at the core, draped with those structural, dramatically dark elements. 95-96/100. £91.00
Frank Cornelissen, Magma Rosso 7 2008, Italy
Liquorice again, but an interesting buttered popcorn note that is hugely unexpected and appears fleetingly before the chicory herbs and bitter green leaf notes, and that lightening touch of cherry and dried herbs on the palate. Beautiful purity and acidity at the core again here. 93/100. £85.00
Frank Cornelissen, Magma Rosso 4 2004, Italy
A huge, very different beast with a wild, gamy intrigue, that massive tarry nose and liquorice concentration less fine than the later vintages, and the palate slightly more roasted and leathery. This is a totally different wine in many ways from the later Magmas, but I did really enjoy its unfurling, animal prowess. 91-92/100. Not available from Raeburn’s. See all UK stockists of Frank Cornelissen wines on wine-searcher.