We’re featuring a very exciting figure for this installment of Behind The Vines. Frank Cornelissen is a natural wine wizard producing captivating wines on an active volcano in Sicily. Frank has been a key player in the natural wine movement since establishing his winery in 2001, and has made major strides in putting Sicilian wine back on the map. His wines are an exuberant celebration of place and are produced in respect for and in response to nature. We’re big fans of Frank Cornelissen’s wines here at Juiced Wines, and wanted to share his fascinating winemaking story with you.
The Early Days
Wine was a part of Frank’s life from an early age. He was the son of a wine broker and collector in Belgium, and began tasting with his father when he was very young. Frank then went on to become a wine broker himself. He was classically trained and tasted all the finest wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Barolo, but as much as he loved these wines, he found himself getting a bit bored with them. When Frank went on a trip to Etna in Sicily, something clicked. He immediately fell in love with the unique wines and terroir from Etna. He cites a 1999 lunch with natural winemaker Giusto Occhipinti as a major a-ha moment--the two shared a bottle of Etna wine and Frank began to realize that he needed to get in on the action. A few months after visiting Etna, he returned, this time to look for vineyard land to call his own. He began his “winery,” if you can call it that, with just ½ a hectare of vines in 2001. Initially, Frank’s wines were more of an experiment for himself, family, and friends than any sort of commercial venture. Frank explains that the project began as more of an anti-wine than a wine. He knew what wines he didn’t want to make much more clearly than what he did want to make. He was fed up with rich, oaky, fruit-bomb wines, and aimed to create their antithesis. What wines he did want to make remained a mystery for future trial and error. Frank Cornelissen says that his first wines were a bit faulty, showing some oxidation and less favourable funk. Though he still loves his wines of the early days, Frank would grow into a very precise natural winemaker later. Over time, Frank became an expert in crafting wines that he could fully stand behind both in taste and philosophy.
Frank Cornelissen wines are born from a deep reverence for the natural world. Before he was ever a winemaker, Frank was an alpine skier and lover of the outdoors. His wines reflect his respect for nature and are more of a humble tribute than an attempt to conquer or control the natural world. Frank’s winemaking approach is informed by his belief that humans will never be able to fully comprehend the complex workings of Mother Nature. For this reason, he chooses not to intervene in the vineyard and cellar whenever possible. He pretty much avoids treatments of any kind in his vineyard, including organic, biodynamic, and homeopathic treatments. He treats his vines only if they are revealing some sort of malady, and never uses pesticides, herbicides, or any other chemicals. Frank believes that to use treatments on the vines is to not accept nature as she is. He sees the role of winemaker as more of a facilitator and assistant to nature. Part of this role means creating a rich habitat for his vines to thrive in. Etna is an area with a high density of vines, but Frank’s has interspersed local fruit and vegetable varieties, olive trees, and bees with his vines in order to regain a complex ecosystem. He avoids tilling the soil and uses buckwheat to add nutrients to soils that need it. Frank’s philosophy follows him from the vineyard into the cellar, where he notes that “the less you put in a wine, the more will come out.” He uses only the native yeasts present on the grape skins, rather than introducing foreign flavours to the wine through the use of inoculated yeasts. He does not add any sulphites to the wine, instead relying on clean and precise winemaking to achieve strong wines. Frank handles his grapes with great care, pressing them delicately before transferring them to small, temperature-controlled tubs. Because so much of the flavour of wine comes from the skins of the grapes, Frank chooses to keep his wines in contact with their skins during both malolactic fermentation as well as alcoholic fermentation. He then transfers his wines over to age in neutral Spanish clay amphorae. The amphorae allow the wines to age without absorbing any external flavours, preserving that sense of place that is present in all Frank Cornelissen wines.
When Frank Cornelissen established his winery in 2001, Etna was a largely undiscovered wine region. While Etna had a rich history of winemaking and was established as a DOC in the 1960s, it had later succumbed to bulk wine production and exporting wine for other regions to blend and sell. Alongside winemakers like Salvo Fotti and the winemakers at COS, Cornelissen advocated for the quality of wines from Etna and spurred a sort of wine renaissance in the region. Etna is its own unique entity within Sicily, and Frank refers to it as “the island within the island.” Though Sicily is a very warm and Mediterranean climate, in Etna there is snow until the end of February. But the most exceptional component of Etna’s terroir is the active volcano Mount Etna. Mount Etna is the largest active volcano in Europe, with eruptions occurring regularly. The high altitudes and constant threat of volcanic eruption pose daunting conditions for viticulture, but Etna rewards its brave winemakers with some of the most fascinating soil the wine world has to offer. Etna showcases a diverse lineup of volcanic soils. The wines produced from the volcanic soils contain a fascinating flinty minerality that can only be found in wines from Etna. Frank had a keen eye when he chose his soil-diverse site in the northern valley of Etna, for the area has now become the most sought-after site for single-vineyard wines. Frank Cornelissen specializes in wines from Etna’s signature grape--Nerello Mascalese. Nerello Mascalese provides the perfect canvas for the region’s soils to sing, as it takes on a strong sense of place. The grape stylistically sits somewhere between Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, offering both power and elegance. The pinnacle of Etna terroir is found in Frank Cornelissen’s Magma and MunJebel labels. These wines are single contrada (single vineyard) and vintage dated, and come from the most esteemed sites on Mount Etna. We are obsessed with the wines Frank Cornelissen refers to as “liquid rock” and currently stock pretty much his entire portfolio.