I visited Frank Cornelissen at his winery for the first time on the evening of the day I arrived in Solicchiata. It was my first full day in Sicily and I was a little rough from the 50+ Kilometre run up around Etna but after lying on my back with my legs up in the air and the mountain in the background, plus a shower, I felt pretty good.
There's a lot of great pictures below and you should look through them, but I've decided to lead with my conclusion after seeing Frank's winery and spending a couple days with him. Here it is.
Frank is head over heels in love with Mount Etna. He said at one point that he hopes he dies in the Barbabechi vineyard. It's that total love of the place that drives him. He's completely and utterly committed to making wines that express that place, or each different unique spot on Etna as cleanly and honestly as possible. He loves Etna and for him making wine is a way to demonstrate that. Even more than that, making incredible wines that taste like the mountain allows him to viscerally share with people around the world how amazing Etna is. His strict avoidance of sulfur or engineered yeasts or any other additives is because he wants to exclusively have the mountain speaking through his wines. Think of each bottle of his wine as a little love letter from Frank trying to share with you how much he loves this mountain and why he beleives it's a wine terroir with potential on a level with Burgundy.
This was the view I had while I was lying on my back putting my feet up
Frank doesn't use stainless steel for any of the vessels that his wines rest in. He feels it's too hard and a sharp thermal conductor and he doesn't like what it does to the wine's tastes. Right here he's pulling a sample from a tank of Munjebel Bianco. This is made from food grade epoxy and Frank would demonstrate by having me put my hands on a piece of stainless steel and then on one of the epoxy tanks and the difference is pretty dramatic.
As nonchalant as most of the natural wine makers I admire seem, I'd already guessed that in order to ferment naturally and not use sulfur in the wines you have to be extremely clean and have a very high level of attention to detail in the winery. Frank's winery was the cleanest I've ever seen. He has air filters ionizing all the air that comes in, everything is sprayed down with an alcohol and citric acid solution every time it is used. Before any wine is handled or moved he cleans the winery with ozone to kill any possible brettanomyces, TBA, TCA, or other possible bacteria. The bottling line is in a sealed container that gets filled with argon or nitrogen (depending on if he thinks the wine needs exposure to a bit of oxygen to settle it) and he has ultra violet lights shining on it to kill any possible rogue bacteria. I was really impressed at the lengths that Frank gone to in order to make sure that he had no possible contamination.
Along with Passopisciaro Frank is pushing for more recognition of Etna's many different growing locations for wine that all have very different temperatures, exposure to the sun, drainage, etc. On Etna they're called Contradas. This is a map of their locations around north Etna.
After visiting Passopisciaro Vincenzo came and had lunch with Frank and I at Cave Ox. Vincenzo is born and raised in the town and has experience and intuitive knowledge of north Etna that you can't really get any other way. It was amazing to listen to him and Frank discuss the mountain and the good and bad things about the rise of Etna's image. Look at those wines we drank too! Francheti! All those Contradas!
Volcanic rocks in the Porcaria vineyard. These are literally everywhere. The soil is completely full of them. They hold water, but they're heavy and dense. They constantly roll into the street. You really just can't get away from them!
Porcaria is one of Vincenzo's favorite vineyards. He thinks that long ago there may have been a river over it because there are some different non volcanic rocks in the center of it and it's pretty unusually flat. Frank also makes wine from here but he gets grapes from some of the edges that are rockier and terraced.
Any time you start working the soil on Etna you end up having to pull masses of those volcanic rocks out of the ground in order to do anything. Here's a pile that was just along the road side up on the way to Passopisciaro.
This is Frank spraying down around the amphora after we'd tasted from them to clean any possible contamination. Those are all 400 clay amphora set in the ground.
A lot of the 2015s were just really done fermenting and settled enough to taste when I visited so Frank hadn't even tasted them since they're transfer into their amphora to rest. We got really into it and tasted pretty much everything. There was so much variation! All were wines from north Etna, from within about 10K of each other, all made from Nerello Mascalese, but they tasted so different! Some vineyards like Chiusa Spagnolo were big and dense and earthy and then others like the Zocco Nero vineyard were intense and racy with beautiful raspberry fruit! The land on Etna is so crazy that traveling half a kilometer can mean 100 meters of elevation change, 20 minutes more sun per day, and lower temperatures at night. No wonder each spot makes totally different tasting wines and I could never figure Nerello out.
One of the ionizing air purifiers cleaning all the air coming into the winery.
Here's a better view of all the amphora set into the floor of the aging room.
The view down into one of the 400 L amphora.
Tasting the Zocco Nero Vineyard out of the amphora. This was one of my favorites. It was very clean and intense and expressive. There were very vivid strawberry and raspberry flavors to it.
Frank has switched to this new type of synthetic cork that's constructed to form a perfect seal with the glass neck of the bottle but also let in just the right amount of air into the bottle for aging. This way there are no corked bottles and Frank knows exactly how much exposure to oxygen each bottle will get. Again it's him trying to get rid of any other variables or ways that his wine making could actively change the way the wine tastes. He's trying to make the absolutely purest expression of each vineyard and vines. He and his wine making is conspicuous in their absence.
The epoxy fermenters have lids that actually slide down inside the tank to adjust to whatever the volume of liquid is currently inside and try to keep any air from touching the wine. Those are currently full of Susucaru
Frank's not done yet either! This is a large old farm house that Frank had just bought in Solicchiata. He said it would take a few years of construction, but he's going to rebuild it and construct a whole new winery for himself underneath it!