Thursday, July 21, 2016

Conversations with Frank Cornelissen of Azienda Agricola Frank Cornelissen (Mt Etna, Sicily)

Very few names are as tightly linked to the emergent Etna quality wine market as is Frank Cornelissen's and it is a testament to Brandon's relationships in the region that his winery was the first scheduled visit on our Sicily tour.

Cornelissen casts a long shadow. According to Roberto Camuto (Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey):
Frank ... had come to Etna because he believed it was the one spot in the world where you could make a wine entirely free of all chemicals, additives and modernity both in the vineyards and in the winery. ... Among fellow winemakers ... Frank is generally respected as a perfectionist. Among hard core enthusiasts in northern Europe and Japan, Frank has developed a fan base for a miniscule production ...
Nesto and di Savino (The World of Sicilian Wine) described Frank as having helped ignite interest in Etna wine. "Since 2008, when he first visited Etna, he has tantalized both locals and wine cognoscienti with his boldly intuitive artisanal wines." And intuition is the key here as he had no formal training or background in winemaking prior to embarking on this venture. His prior relationship to the industry had been as a wine broker.

Prior to heading over to Frank, we paid a walk-in visit to Cantine Russo, a visit which both started and ended later than we had anticipated. Our appointment with Frank was at 11:00 at the winery in Solicchiata so Brandon drove like a bat out of hell between the two locations because Frank does not like people being late for their appointments. We pulled up on the nose and Frank was outside to see that we had done so. Brandon heaved a sigh of relief and then went to look for parking.

The driveway slopes rather steeply from street level to the winery entrance and Frank was down at the bottom conversing with an employee. At the conclusion of that conversation introductions were made and we headed over to the cellar entrance. On the inside of the entrance there was low-walled container semi-filled with some type of liquid and we were asked to douse the soles of our footwear into that liquid in order to "decontaminate " them. This was the very first time I had ever encountered this practice. This guy was definitely different.

Frank and Brandon
Looking around the cellar, I was greeted by unfamiliar sights. In your typical cellar you see stainless steel tanks, or cement tanks, or concrete eggs, or wooden vats. Not so here. Instead I experienced a number of mud-colored, plastic-looking containers (turned out to be fiberglass) and a jarring absence of the expected.

Frank walked over to a large map on one of the cellar walls and embarked on a disquisition of site and grape growing in the Etna region. According to Frank, Etna can be divided into four sides:
  • Western
    • This side has never been planted to vines (too cold)
  • Northern
    • This area gets more sun than the southern slopes
    • In this zone it is all about the vineyard
    • He sees it as the future Côte de Nuit with Nerello Mascalese and vineyard diversity as the vehicles
  • Southern
    • Variety is key here
  • Eastern
    • Variety is key here.

Etna growing zones
The northern zone stretches between the towns of Linguaglossa in the east to Randazzo in the west and it is from within this area that Frank sources the grapes for his wines. He farms between 18.5 and 24 ha, 10 ha of which is owned and the balanced leased. The vines are distributed between 12 red and 6 white vineyard sites in Linguaglossa and one red and one white vineyard site in Randazzo. The location of the vineyard sites are shown in the figure below.

Linguaglossa as the right-hand map; Randazzo as the left
 Frank is looking to buy a new property each year up until he gets to 30 ha. His goal currently is to purchase Chiusa Spagnola, a site in Linguglossa that he currently leases. The characteristics that he looks for in a site include exposure and quality/type of subsoil. He sees high-altitude vineyards as "precious" due to their greater access to light.

As it relates to farming practices, Frank is not a big fan of biodynamic farming. He sees it as beneficial if used as a cure rather than as a practice. For example, if a site is "dead," biodynamic farming could be used to regenerate the soil. That was the basis for Steiner's introduction of the method: an attempt to combat beaten-up soils in Europe. Intensive agriculture has not been practiced on Etna so the soils are in good shape. There is no need for biodynamic farming here.

Biodynamic farming as a concept is fine but biodynamic wine does not exist by principle, according to Frank. Steiner had eliminated alcohol from his diet because, he said, it takes away lucidity and reasoning. You can say wine made from biodynamically grown grapes but not biodynamic wine.

As opposed to biodynamic farming, Frank sees benefits to organic farming with homeopathic applications. Cornelissen is certified organic (Frank observed that organic certification had higher standards in the US than it did in Europe.).

As regards the future, if Etna producers have the will to clean up the mess (define and adhere to growing-region constraints), they will become like Barolo; if not, they will become like Brunello di Montalcino. Today there are similarities between Brunello and Etna. In his view, Etna will be the next Barolo.

There has been rapid change in the last 15 years (unusual for an agricultural area and for Italy) but the region is suffereing from a lack of artisanal producers. There is no shortage of investors but what is really needed is more medium-sized wineries with hands-on winemakers.

Etna has great potential, says Frank. He sees very few wine areas with similar diversity from vineyard to vineyard. Did someone say Burgundy?

I will cover Cornilissen winemaking and the tasting of his wines in a follow-up post.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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