May 18, 2020|In Winery Spotlight

Frank Cornelissen: Natural Wine That's Too HOT to Handle

Mount Etna, Sicily erupting

From the volcanic faces of Mount Etna in Sicily comes a truly luminary addition to the Dhall & Nash portfolio. The wines of Azienda Agricola Frank Cornelissen, as the name suggests, are from a farm not an estate. They represent pure passion rather than product generation, more a vivid idea than intellectual endeavour. As some of the first inspiring words we read from Frank before reaching out looking for an allocation admit,

Our farming philosophy is based on our acceptance of the fact that man will never be able to understand nature’s full complexity and interactions. We therefore choose to concentrate on observing and learning the movements of Mother Earth [before] deciding and imposing ourselves.”

 

New Zealanders simply have to experience this Wondermaker…

Originally working as a merchant in the Belgian wine trade, Frank Cornelissen instantly saw the potential of Etna’s wine when sharing a bottle over a lunch in Sicily. He quickly hightailed it up to the island’s prominent volcano to further explore the timeworn terrain and wines of the area, before shortly concluding that, if wine is indeed sunlight held together by water as described by Galileo, then Etna is the place to come grow and bottle poetry.

The label was officially established right after this transcendent introduction in 2001, when Frank purchased a vineyard in the northern valleys of Mount Etna. The northern valley is considered Etna’s top area for single-vineyard (contrada) red wines, much like the Côtes-de-Nuits in Burgundy or Barolo in Piemonte, and is where the first vintages of the infamous ‘Magma’ came to be. At elevations of over 830m and from ungrafted Nerello Mascalese vines, many over a century old, this was some seriously unique terroir to start on the path of cultivating some equally unique wines from.

The Winemaking

Example of amphora used to age wine

Imagine everything and anything it might take to make wine in a natural way, and guaranteed that approach has been put into practice by the team at Frank Cornelissen, and then some. Frank is described as being unrelenting and extreme when it comes to his hands-off attitude to tending both vines and wines. This goes so far as avoiding all intervention, even those that are organic, biodynamic and homeopathic. “WHAT?!” we asked ourselves… before recalling his belief that “accepting and following nature is our guideline”. Maybe something we could learn to accept and follow a bit more, too…

Nevertheless, Frank doesn’t shy away from the possibility of bad vintages, opting instead for a complete embrace of transparency and acceptance of this inevitability. He recently surprised writers for The New York Times when they approached requesting samples to review, and in response received examples of ‘failed’ earlier vintages from the farm, explaining that they would be ‘instructive’. This admission of evolution, learning and improving along the way can be rare amongst winemakers, when projecting absolute knowledge might sell you more bottles.

On his various vineyards, Frank notes,

“In order to obtain profound, territorial wines, our grape yields are low, around 300 to 600g per vine for the top vineyards and wines, achieved by pruning very short in the dormant season.” 

And this is just the beginning of the natural cycle of life for the farm’s fruit. In contact with skins, grapes are fermented in small neutral tubs as a way to better control the temperatures. After alcoholic fermentation has finished, they are transferred to neutral vessels so as to not absorb any external flavours. Wines intended for early bottling go into larger epoxy decanting tanks to come together over whatever time is deemed necessary before release to market. Wines destined for longer ageing due to greater tannin and structure in comparison, age in smaller epoxy tanks, or in epoxy coated terracotta amphorae buried to the neck into the volcanic bedrock beneath the cellar. And that’s it! Given the health of the fruit harvested, no unnecessary additions are needed, little to no sulphur depending on the wine and vintage, no fining (therefore vegetarian/vegan) or filtration to retain maximum flavour and site expression.

 

Finally, every bottle of Azienda Agricola Frank Cornelissen can be individually authenticated via a radio frequency identification chip installed, so buyers can be assured of the wine’s providence (see here for an explainer on this tech).

High Acclaim

Naturally (so to speak), the Cornelissen farm and wines have attracted the attention of critics and enthusiasts the world over. Jamie Goode’s The Wine Anorak describes it as “one of the most unique and unusual projects I’ve yet encountered in the world of wine”. In Rob Haskell’s article for Vogue, ‘Why Wild, Chemical-Free, “Natural” Wines Are Taking the Industry by Storm’ Frank is described as “a Belgian fanatic at work on the high slopes of Mount Etna whose wines taste like the aftermath of a volcanic eruption.” (The ultimate compliment to a man who has always aimed to produce ‘liquid rock’ – wines of real seismic energy).

Viceland has recently released a show titled “F*ck That’s Delicious” where the highly personable chef-turned-rapper presenter Action Bronson was introduced to the wines and has not stopped talking about them since. He followed up in their “Munchies” series and raved about Frank’s natural wines, particularly the Susucaru Wine. “Mr Frank Cornelissen, the orchestrator of some of the most incredible natural beverages that one could ever imagine…” Action Bronson states, “I was privileged to taste the wine – Susucaru… bottom line is I taste this natural stuff and my eyes just lit up, some lightbulb went off and I feel like this is where the journey of life has taken me, and where I need to continue to explore.”


With a reputation that truly precedes him, Frank Cornelissen firmly embodies the philosophy of the need for the work to be greater than the worker – the fact our 2020 allocation of his wines sold out before landing attests to this. We highly recommend that if you’re interested in securing a few bottles of any wines from the range from next year’s shipment, drop us a line now! (email info@dnfinewine.com)