Thursday, May 12, 2011

Frank Cornelissen: a winemaker who doesn't 'make' wine

Thanks to my colleague Simon Woods for the photo.

I’d heard a lot about Frank Cornelissen - a bit of a bogeyman for those who are sceptical about natural wine (you can see Victoria Moore’s account of her visit to him here) so was interested to get the opportunity to meet him at a wine dinner at the south London wine bar Artisan & Vine last night.

From a wine point of view I didn’t find his wines that extreme - well, his reds anyway. His whites are quite challenging. But that probably says more about the way my tastebuds have changed since I started drinking natural wine.

But he is quite an extreme person, given to making didactic pronouncements such as that 95% of all vineyard land is unsuitable for growing grapes. He doesn’t use any chemical additions or treatments including biodynamic ones (interesting) “as these are all a mere reflection of the inability of man to accept nature as she is and will be". And no products during the course of what he describes as his (non)winemaking including sulphur. “You don’t need to add things. I want to make 100% wine”.

In case you’re not familiar with his wines his are grown on the north slopes of Mount Etna and no, with that name he’s obviously not an Italian but a self-taught Belgian who used to be a wine trader. His newer vineyards are planted ungrafted alongside fruit and olive trees - he doesn’t believe in a monoculture (I’m with him there) - and the wines are harvested late between October and November.

We tasted about 10 of his wines along with 2 olive oils and 3 grappas from different terroirs, a process which is pretty hard to follow as he numbers his wines in a particularly confusing way. Or maybe it had just been a long day.

His simplest wine is the Rosso del Contadino a base of 70% Nerello Mascalese with up to 15 other white and red varieties including Alicante Bouschet. We tried the no 4 2006 and no 7 2009 which showed to my mind how the wines benefit from ageing although he says he’s now bottling them earlier. These I would say are a vin de soif - though I'm not sure Frank would approve of that description - and the sort of wines he prefers to drink with food. Refreshing but with a distinctive smokey edge.

Then the Munjebel Bianco no 4 2007 and no 6 2009, a true ‘orange’ wine made by leaving the grapes (Carricante, Grecanico Dorato and Coda di Volpe) in contact with the skins for three months. The 2007 was delicious with a rich dried apricot flavour and almost sherried nose, the ’09 much more of a blank canvas though it did go better than the 07 with its matching course of octopus and potato salad.

The Munjebel Rosso is pure Nerello Mascalese blended from two vintages - usually two thirds the younger vintage, one third the older - and aged for 6-18 months in lined amphoras

The no 6 (2008/9) was quite smokey - almost cheesey - but went well with a sweet-sour dish of Tamworth pork, caponata and wild asparagus (the pairings from chef James Robson were brilliant). The no 7 (2009/10) was much brighter and more vibrant with a ripe cherry flavour while the 03, a single vintage made in 2005 that was 80% botrytised, was so rich it was almost Amarone-like. Cornelissen reckons the no 6 won't be at its best for another 4-5 years.

Finally Magma Rosso, Frank’s icon wine which carries a registered trademark, costs over £100 a bottle retail and is only made in selected years (not in 2005 or 2010). Again Nerello Mascalese made from high altitude ungrafted plots, left on the skins for 3 months followed by 6 months to a year in amphoras.

It lived up to the hype. The no 5 (2006) was very exotic and scented - my tasting notes say ‘romantic’ and I think this is a wine you could fall in love with. The no 7 (2008) was quite sweet and floral - obviously with a long way still to go while the no 4 (2004) was at its peak - really magnificent, powerful and brooding. And very good with the cheese, dried fruit and nuts it was served with though Frank says he likes to drink it on its own.

I asked Frank what I think many people would wonder which is how he feels about the ever-present danger of a massive eruption on Etna and he simply shrugged and said that he, like the locals, live with it. “If it happens, it happens”

I really liked the wines though am not sure they’re worth the prices they fetch - but there are admittedly very little of them (about 500-700 bottles in the case of the Magma) The man? Not easy. Heavy as the hippies used to say. But who says winemakers have to be smooth-talking PR men?

Oh, and the meal was exceptional. I’ll return to that on my main site

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