Crazy Good Wines on Mount Etna

Writers (such as myself) love to discover characters in the wine industry we can deem “crazy.” In a good way, of course. Crazy like a wine savant. And though I’ve yet to meet Frank Cornelissen, all accounts suggest that he may just be the prototypical wine crazyman, a guy who couldn’t do what he does if he was normal. This, of course, has resulted in Cornellissen becoming somewhat of a cult figure in the industry.

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In the excellent book Palmento – which includes stories from the author’s time in Sicily, and is a must for any Italian wine lover – Robert Camuto writes:

Cornelissen was the first winemaker I visited because I suspected he might be close to insane – in every positive sense of the word. Why else would a middle-aged northern European choose to plant himself [on Mt. Etna in Sicily] and make wine from vineyards that had been neglected or abandoned by the locals for most of a century? Why else would anyone choose to scratch out a life with little help on land so perilously placed within spitting distance of one of the world’s most active volcanoes?

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Cornelissen has gained some notoriety for his minimalist approach to grape growing, notably his refusal to use sulfur or copper sulfate to treat the vines, to the point that Wine Spectator’s Matt Kramer commented that his “‘no nothing’ approach makes biodynamic agriculture, with its various homeopathic sprays and fetishistic composting, seem downright interventionist.” (Kramer’s piece on the vintner is also worth a read, for those interested in a deeper backstory.)

In his early days especially, this created some weird results. Cornelisson himself admitted (to Camuto) that he’s made some “off wines.” Kramer called his 2007 Munjebel #4 White “awful.” Considering, though, that the guy moved across Europe with hardly any experience, is this surprising?

Nowadays, he seems to have gotten past those early days of big mistakes and is creating consistently excellent wines. They may not be for everyone, of course, but certainly those who seek out the interesting and different should try them at least once.

 


 

frank-cornelissen-rosso-contadino-11Seemingly harder and harder to find in today’s wine world is the red that’s both elegant and complex. Light, yet nuanced. It seems that, so often, bigger is seen as better, and many wine makers have adjusted as such. Even as the pendulum has begun to swing towards more balanced styles, medium-bodied is about the best one can often do.

Enter Frank Cornelissen Rosso del Contadino Terre Siciliane No. 11. I tasted this alongside two other reds − Cornelissen’s Munjebel 2013 and Munjebel CS 2013 − which are both big, brawny beasts, and at first, the Contadino seemed simple. Especially when I first tasted the Munjebel, which exploded out of the bottle with aromas of mulled spice, mulch, chocolate and plums, just raring to go, the Contadino was overpowered.

The longer I spent with the Contadino, however, the more excited I got. This is a subtle, elegant, and profound wine. Deceptively complex. Perfect for lighter foods. There’s a ton going on here: red cherries and plums, mandarin orange, roses, five spice, tobacco, smoke, and a hint of pepper on the finish.

I found it a stellar pairing for dishes featuring tomato and eggplant, but it seems versatile enough to stand up to mild spice, proteins from hearty seafood to mid-weight meats and everything in between.

I don’t mean to take anything away from the Munjebel and Munjebel CS; they just don’t seem as unique. They are serious wines that make no mistake as to why they are coveted worldwide. Deep and rich, featuring darker cherry and prune fruits, they manage to maintain elegance despite their immense alcohol content (label says 15%, but it must be more). As mentioned above, the regular Munjebel was roarin’ to go right out of the bottle, whereas the CS took some more time and air to show, and would probably do better with a few years on its side. That said, with food − especially, strangely, a pastrami sandwich with caraway seeds − the finish lasted seemingly forever.


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This post is part Italian Food, Wine & Travel’s volcanic wines theme. Below are the other posts from the group.