Belgian born Frank Cornelissen has been producing wine on Etna's highest elevation, north-facing vineyards since 2001. From the beginning, he’s been a lightning rod in the world of wine, and certainly in Sicily, with his insistence on zero sulfur in the cellar and perhaps some of the most extreme natural viticulture practices on the island. Initially the wines were lean and mean, wine that in his own words were ”liquid rock”. Over the years the wine has taken on a bit more weight and a lot more fruit complexity. Along with a select few of his neighbors, he produces wine that balances Nerello Mascalese's dark brooding fruit with the intense mineral complexity of Etna’s soils.
Cornelissen grew up in Belgium surrounded by wine. His father worked as a successful wine broker and thus Frank began his oenological studies at a young age. His studies created an intense fascination for the volcanic terroir of the north side Sicily’s Mt. Etna's. He believed in this area's unique voice and decided this was the spot he could tell the story he wanted to tell through wine.
Early on the decision was made to work strictly with old vines. He originally started with just 1.5 hectares in 2001 and over the years has expanded to over 12 hectares. Many vines were planted before 1910. Everything that's exceptional and intriguing about the Cornelissen wines comes out of these vineyards. Frank’s viticultural approach is the most extreme I’ve come across. He avoids any sort of spraying, including the sulfur and copper remedies used by organic and biodynamic growers unless an existential threat to the crop arises. The vines are free standing bush vines (known here as alberello; in France this is referred to as gobelet). The rest of the estate consists of olive, fruit and nut trees as well as brush.
Frank doesn’t like the idea of monoculture, so he interplants the vines with various local fruits and wheat. He planted a new vineyard a few years ago with ungrafted cuttings from existing old vines on the estate, and these vines were planted at lower density to allow cultivation of other plants between the vines. The vines are manicured, with great attention being taken to ensure the grapes are healthy through the long, late harvest consisting of multiple passes through the vineyard in late October to mid November. There is no tilling or plowing! Yields are miniscule.
There is not much to talk about when it comes to Frank's work in the cellar; minimalist to the point of being monastic. He has moved away from amphora, and oak is never used. His interests in expressing Etna without any intervention have moved him toward inert, lined fiberglass vessels for aging. They are there to safely age the wine and nothing else. There's zero sulphur added to the wines at any point. In order to produce wine as pure as these the winery is kept extremely clean from top to bottom and every detail of work here is done with the most scrupulous eye.
Frank’s wines are some of the most precise and purest snapshots of the incredible terroir of his adopted home. His wine reached cult status long ago and is amongst some of the world's most sought after.