If Salvo Foti and Ciro Biondi thoroughly tell the story of Etna's past, then Belgium-born Frank Cornelissen illustrates the adventurous spirit of Etna's future. Cornelissen has been producing wine on Etna's highest elevation, north-facing vineyards since 2001. His style has changed quite a lot over the years, but he's perhaps recognized most for his insistence on a zero sulphur approach in the cellar. His name can be a lightning rod in the world of wine, and certainly in Sicily. After years of changing small details in the cellar his wines today are cleaner and more composed than ever before. This is the wild side of Mt. Etna.
Today, I'm happy to offer Frank Cornelissen's Munjebel Rosso, single Contrada Munjebel Rossos, as well as the mythical, Magma.
Cornelissen grew up in a family surrounded by wine in Belgium where his father worked as a wine broker. His studies created an intense fascination for the volcanic terroir on Mt. Etna's north side. He fervently believed there was a unique voice yet to be spoken here, and he had his own plan of attack to tell this personal story of place.
He set his eyes on working strictly with old vines, 40-years of age being about the minimum under his estate. The process started with only 1.5 hectares in 2001 and now has grown to 12 hectares, with vines going back to plantings from 1910.
Everything that's exceptional and intriguing about the Cornelissen wines exists in the vineyard. These are some of the most awe-inspiring parcels I've ever set foot on. Walking among the 100+ year-old Nerello Mascalese vines tied to the local chestnut alberello stakes was a dramatic experience, faced out from these terraces seeing the valley below with towering mountains in the distance. The black sandy volcanic soils that falls through your hand immediately draws to mind the power of this active volcano beneath your very feet.
Frank's work in the cellar is something that needs very little time to detail here. He's moved away from amphora, and oak is never used. All wine are aged in fiberglass-lined tanks. His interests are in expressing Etna without any intervention from materials outside the vineyard. The tanks are completely inert, serving only as a safe vessel for aging. There's zero sulphur added to the wines at any point. This regimen requires the winery to be a extremely clean from top to bottom and every detail of work here is done with the most scrupulous eye. It was evident the second we walked in that this was a very different kind of cellar.
The non-sulphur regimen brings a vividness and bright, fresh quality to the fruit profile that stands out immediately. The minerality from this singular soil is certainly obvious, but the dynamic personality of the fruit makes itself known first. I personally find that non-sulphured wines, when executed the very best, have an added high-toned spicy quality that offers an abundance of concentrated wild fruit that's rare to come across in more conventional wines. This quality can be divisive in some circles of drinkers, but I find it to be fascinating. Coupled with clean winemaking and it's something that rapidly pulls me back for sip after sip, nearly unconsciously.
Last winter's bottle of Munjebel Rosso I opened alongside my favorite local burger proved to be one of the highlight pairings of the season. The experience was a great reminder that these wines, today with their pristine soundness, bear very little resemblance to those produced in many years past where problems related to the zero sulphur regimen were, for me, too problematic. Clean as a whistle is how I'd describe these 2016's!
Munjebel Rosso "Pure Nerello Mascalese from different vineyards, partly from our best parcels where we produce our crus (Zottorinoto-Chiusa Spagnolo, Feudo di Mezzo-Porcaria, Pontale Palino) as well as designated vineyards for this specific wine (Rampante, Piano Daini and Crasà). A classic, traditional Nerello Mascalese with tannins and sweetness of ripe fruit. My vision of a traditional, balanced and rich Northern Valley Etna wine."
CS (CONTRADA ZOTTORINOTO – CHIUSA SPAGNOLO)
"This pure Nerello Mascalese comes from our ungrafted vineyard in contrada Zottorinoto, more specific in the section Chiusa Spagnola, situated lower in the valley floor, a bit hidden in an amphitheater, surrounded by lava. A unique vineyard, planted around 1925 at a lower altitude (620m. asl) producing a profound, tannic wine, a bit more backward and Nebbiolo-ish compared to our other crus and lighter in colour."
CR (CONTRADA CAMPO RE)
"This pure Nerello Mascalese comes from a partly ungrafted vineyard Campo Re, situated at the far Western side in the valley floor, at the entrance of Randazzo. The vineyard altitude is 735m. asl and is characterized by deep soil which, in humid vintages creates major difficulties to obtain ripe fruit. The wines are profound and tannic, and more backward and Nebbiolo-ish compared to our other crus."
PA (CONTRADA FEUDO DI MEZZO – PORCARIA)
"This pure Nerello Mascalese is produced from our old vine alberello cru Porcaria, situated at 640 m. asl. in the contrada Feudo di Mezzo. A challenging location in order to achieve perfection in maturation. It has the power as well as refined elegance in the balanced vintages when everything falls into place. A complete wine."
VA (CUVÉE VIGNE ALTE)
"This pure Nerello Mascalese is a blend from our 3 highest vineyards (Vigne Alte): Tartaraci, Monte Dolce, Pettinociarelle. It expresses beautifully the value and precision of the old vines, ungrafted Nerello Mascalese on the high terraces in the Northern valley of Mount Etna. The most Burgundian of all our crus."
MAGMA (CONTRADA BARBABECCHI)
"Our “Grand Vin” from our Barbabecchi vineyard at 910m. asl. Planted around 1910 and North-North East exposed, capturing the first and cool morning sun rays. This pure Nerello Mascalese from ungrafted old vines produces a profound wine, rich as well as elegant at the same time with character and personality: liquorice and oriental spices. Only produced in great vintages where we achieve full phenolic ripeness."