This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES France.
We're in a small village in a valley just north of Etna, Italy, on the east coast of Sicily. There are walls made of dry stones as far as the eye can see, surrounded completely by volcanic rock and spontaneous vegetation, in total harmony with the work of a man who's always produced and derived his sustenance from a difficult but generous earth.
Getting to Etna isn't easy, considering that you need to climb the sides of a still-active volcano—the Munjibello, as the Italians call it, or simply a muntagna, meaning Mount Etna. But it's where you need to be if you want to get to know Frank Cornelissen and his wines.
Cornelissen decided to plant his winery here even though he's not Sicilian—or even Italian. Before him, local wines were sold casually at best and went unlabeled; no one was really aware of the earth's value. Everything has changed since his arrival: Etna's wines are now well-known and costly, and have bumped wine values up throughout the entire region.
"I come from the world of wine," Cornelissen explains. "I've travelled a lot for this, my passion. But at a certain point in my life—at exactly 40 years old—I felt the need to change direction. So I settled in Sicily, in the valley just north of Etna. I came here to get away. I made a mental map of the major wine-growing regions that produced the most elegant wines, and Sicily was on the list."
A glance at one of his vineyards immediately conveys the nature of the mountain. They're divided into small terraces by dry stone walls, and scattered with a few acres of sapling vines, grass, the terrain's spontaneous vegetation, and the occasional fruit tree.
"When I started, I was searching for a precise concept: I wanted to find the lava within the bottle, which I call the liquid rock."
Before he started making his own wines, Cornelissen was a broker of prized bottles. In other words, he was a treasure hunter. He scoured the world in search of antique, abandoned, forgotten, or simply rare labels for resale on the collector's market. One such bottle came from here—a bottle with a photocopied label, from an unknown producer and without any market.
I believe more in the self-management of nature and of the vines. For me, it's more important to allow a fruit tree to grow in a vineyard than to repeat every year on the same day a precise treatment according to astral patterns.
"I thought I was trying a Piedmontese wine," he tells me candidly, "And then instead I found out that it was from Sicily, north of Etna. My curiosity was piqued and I ended up coming here. It was in May—there was still snow on the peak of the volcano, many old vines, dry stone walls, and I said, 'Wow, what a region!' You have the microclimates, photosynthesis, geology, everything!"
"I'm not an oenologist and I've never followed the rules of the oenology book. If I were an oenologist, I would've produced the umpteenth bottle of boring wine, but instead I like the experimentation that tends towards a specific objective."
In 2001, Cornelissen started his production with 500 bottles. "When I started, I was searching for a precise concept: I wanted to find the lava within the bottle, which I call the liquid rock. Not having had any oenological experience, at first I pushed all the concepts to extremes and I made very oxidized and strange wines, but it was always [rooted in] the idea of the volcano inside. And it's impossible to think that it might not be this way, because here everything is in symbiosis with the volcano, why wouldn't the wine be? I get up in the morning watching the mountain and it tells me things: I observe whether it grumbles or whether it's doing well. With the accumulation of clouds around the peak, you can tell how the weather is progressing without having to look it up online."
This year, Cornelissen reached his seventeenth vintage, and his wines are prized throughout the world. But there's no marketing or oenology behind the venture. "I'm not an oenologist and I've never followed the rules of the oenology book. If I were an oenologist, I would've produced the umpteenth bottle of boring wine, but instead I like the experimentation that tends towards a specific objective."
Cornelissen's method has allowed him to break all the constraints of modern oenology. "In the first seven harvests, I think that the wine was more of myself than it was of the soil," he recalls. "Whereas today I think it expresses Etna very well. I'm here to interpret the soil and to follow it, not to put my stamp on it. Little by little, you become wiser in life."
He's considered a hero of natural wine, but none of these labels are of any interest to him.
"I don't like the definition of natural wine," he admits. "There's conventional wine, organic wine, and then, there's the biodynamic element that [may or may not] result in being natural. We apply the biodynamic element in the winery, but I'm not able to do so in the countryside and it doesn't interest me. I believe more in the self-management of nature and of the vines. For me, it's more important to allow a fruit tree to grow in a vineyard than to repeat every year on the same day a precise treatment according to astral patterns."
"It's diversity that makes things beautiful, even in nature," Cornelissen continues. "Good sense is required. I do different things every year on different terrains. Every plot of land is different, and I do everything according to the necessity of the plant and my intuition. I don't use fertilizer or pesticides; only a little bit of sulphur and copper wire on the vines if it's necessary. Does that make me a natural producer? Who can say? My wine—I would simply define it as wine—is a wine from Etna, a result of my technique and my philosophy. To call it natural wine would be limiting."
The fiberglass vats where Cornelissen stores his wine.
Cornelissen previously used amphorae and obsidian to store his wine, convinced that the energy of the volcanic rock could help the wine's overall concentration. He still believes in the benefits of obsidian today, but he no longer uses the amphorae and instead stores his wine in fiberglass vats, like they did in Sicily until the end of the 1960s and 70s.
He doesn't like steel and he doesn't use wood, because it would contaminate his idea of wine as the pure expression of a soil. His wines are naked, sincere, and authentic expressions of a mountain that he's now made his own.
"I'd like to try titanium. Of course a vat would come with enormous costs, but I might find out that titanium is absolutely the best thing for wine. I use stoppers that are a concentration of technologies and not made of simple cork. Does that make me any less organic of a winemaker? I don't care."