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Drinking Out Loud

Weighing Greatness Against Originality

A visit in Sicily with a member of winemaking’s “Crazy Club” raises profound questions

Matt Kramer
Posted: December 1, 2009

SOLICCHIATA, Sicily—It’s pretty rare for me to visit a producer whose wines I’ve not previously tasted. After all, you don’t want to waste somebody’s time. And you don’t want to lie to a producer about the wines he or she is presenting to you—or insult him or her, either.

Nevertheless, on a trip last month to Sicily, I felt compelled to seek out Frank Cornelissen. If you haven’t heard of him, you’re in good company. I suspect that most wine lovers, even those who pursue Italian wines ardently, haven’t heard of Mr. Cornelissen. And if by chance they have, then they probably haven’t had his wines. I was in the latter category.

I had heard Mr. Cornelissen’s name because I’m a fan of what I call the “Crazy Club.” The Crazy Club comprises all those wonderfully idiosyncratic winegrowers who are, in my admiring opinion, pushing the boundaries of conventional winegrowing way beyond what’s considered normal or even advisable. Frank Cornelissen, I had heard, was in a league of his own. That made me want to meet him, never mind that I had never tasted a drop of his wine.

So that’s why I found myself high on the slopes of Sicily’s Mount Etna in a rainstorm so drenching that having the car’s wipers on double-speed made almost no difference. But even though I had an address, there was no finding Mr. Cornelissen.

Finally, at my wife’s urging (“For God’s sakes, ask somebody!”), I bolted into a small grocery and inquired in my fractured but serviceable Italian if anybody knew Signore Cornelissen. “Certo,” came the cheery response. “He’s only 500 meters away. Look for a green door.”

After several back-and-forth passes along the street, we did, eventually, discover Mr. Cornelissen’s micro-winery. As best as I could see—keep in mind that sheets of water were coming down, which inhibited any interest in snooping about too closely—Mr. Cornelissen’s winery was a garage-type operation where all of the fermenting vats are large plastic tubs stacked around a small courtyard. This, I later learned, was indeed about the size of it.

Out came Mr. Cornelissen, wearing the sort of rain gear one associates with Maine lobstermen. “Let’s get out of this insane rain,” he said, motioning to us to follow him inside a combined office and tasting room that could accommodate just four people.

I liked him on first sight. A lean fellow in his mid-40s, with bright eyes, a serious demeanor and not a shred of pretension or posturing, he is, I soon discovered, a man on a mission. He has no time or interest for anything that might get in the way of his highly personal and particular pursuit of the beautiful.

Mr. Cornelissen speaks exceptionally good English. He’s not Italian but Belgian—Flemish, actually. And he has a gift for languages. “For a while there, German was almost as much as a mother tongue to me as Flemish,” he noted. Not surprisingly, Mr. Cornelissen’s Italian is fluent, which was apparent as he chatted on the phone with a neighbor. Also, he speaks some Japanese, having lived in Japan. His wife is Japanese; the two met in Sicily. (During lunch, she laughed about her own Japanese-inflected Italian. “I can’t roll my ‘Rs’,” she said.)

During the tasting, it quickly became apparent that Mr. Cornelissen’s wines are not for everyone. Indeed, when I tasted the first wine—a dry white called Munjebel #4 from the 2007 vintage—I felt a shiver of fear that his wines might not be for me, either. It was a blend of Grecanico Dorato, Carricante, Catarratto and Coda di Volpe. I don’t mind telling you that this was one weird white, even by Crazy Club standards.

The first thing I noticed was the heavy deposit in the bottle. To call it unfiltered understates the matter. If you put a toy sleigh in the bottle, you’d have a helluva convincing snow scene. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much sediment in a finished wine.

The color was a coppery gold/bronze. But the wine neither looked nor smelled oxidized. Clearly, like a lot of other Crazy Club whites, it saw prolonged skin contact. Keep in mind that the overwhelming majority of white wines made today see no skin contact whatsoever. This is one of the winemaking conventions questioned by the Crazy Club. Producers such as Josko Gravner, Massa Vecchia and Castello di Lispida, among others, submit that white wines can and should be treated like reds, which is to say with a prolonged intermingling of the flavor-rich skins with the fermenting juice.

“I don’t use any sulfites in my winemaking,” said Mr. Cornelissen. “None in the winemaking, and none before bottling. Also, I don’t use any sprays on my grapes. Nothing. No sulfur, no copper. No nothing. And nothing is added to the soil—no compost, no manure.”

Having said that, he added, “I do use aged manure in a new vineyard, though. The manure is mixed in the soil and then the field is left fallow for three to four years. I just plant buckwheat for those years. Then I’ll put in the vines.”

I couldn’t help but wonder: How low can you limbo? Mr. Cornelissen’s “no nothing” approach makes biodynamic agriculture, with its various homeopathic sprays and fetishistic composting, seem downright interventionist.

That first white wine, the 2007 Munjebel #4, was less than persuasive. Although the nose was rich and grapey, the actual taste was, well, awful. It was burnt-tasting and overly acidic, finishing with a noticeable tannic astringency.

“The wine sees skin contact for about three months,” said Mr. Cornelissen. “The alcoholic fermentation is very slow and long, between 45 to 70 days.

“Fermentation is done in those small, high-density polyethylene tubs you saw out in the courtyard,” he continued. “They each hold 1,000 liters [264 gallons]. We cover them with PVC covers, but they’re not sealed. That’s because, during fermentation, a blanket of natural carbon dioxide is created. That allows for a long fermentation without oxidation. Finally, when the malo is finished, we press the skins.”

Once past this rather rocky initiation with the white wine, I couldn’t help but wonder what was in store with the reds. Here on Mount Etna, red means Nerello Mascalese, which can create magnificent wines. The first red presented was a 2008 called Contadino #4, which is a blend of 70 percent to 80 percent Nerello Mascalese with a balance of Alicante Bouschet, Sangiovese and Uva Francese.

This wine too, like all of Mr. Cornelissen’s wines, is fermented in those 1,000-liter plastic tubs. Unlike the white wine, though, the reds are aged in 400-liter (106-gallon) clay amphorae that are glazed on the inside. (“They’re easier to clean when they’re glazed, and there’s less oxidation,” he noted.)

Contadino #4 was an inviting red wine with a bright, medium-garnet hue—lighter than many other, more brooding, examples of Nerello Mascalese. A bitter cherry nose had a come-hither quality, as did the medium fruitiness in the body of the wine. However, excessive tannins and a puckering astringency marred the finish. When I commented on this, Mr. Cornelissen said simply, “2008 was an unusually tannic year.”

Still, things were looking up—if slowly. Then came Munjebel Rosso #5, made entirely from Nerello Mascalese but a blend of one-third 2007 and two-thirds 2008—two amphorae of the ’07 and four of the ’08 vintage. Asked about the name, Mr. Cornelissen explained, “Before Mount Etna was called ‘Etna,’ it was known as Munjebello, from the Arabic word ‘jebel,’ for mountain.”

Here, finally, we were onto something both truly original and persuasive. Munjebel Rosso #5 delivered a fragrant, intensely perfumy scent of wild and bitter cherry, with a strikingly dense texture on the palate. Tannins were present, but they were lubricated by the buffering fruit. It was a pretty, yet deceptively substantial, red wine.

Finally, the Cornelissen signature wine, called 2007 Magma #6 (no explanation needed for that name, I would think, given Mount Etna’s most recent eruption in 2002 and the volcanic origins of the zone’s soil). Also 100 percent Nerello Mascalese, Magma comes from a single vineyard of just 3.7 acres at a high elevation of 3,000 feet.

“I make 800 to 1,000 bottles of Magma,” said Mr. Cornelissen. He said this rather flatly. But bells began ringing. Arithmetic has never been my strong suit, but all those years of talking about yields with Burgundians was paying off. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Romanée-Conti is four and one-half acres, and it issues 7,000 to 8,000 bottles. Yet your yield from the Magma vineyard is but a fraction of Romanée-Conti’s.”

Mr. Cornelissen grinned. Clearly, he enjoyed the comparison. Who wouldn’t? The explanation is simple, he said. “We have 6,500 vines in 1.5 hectares, three-quarters of which are on ungrafted roots. Those ungrafted vines were planted in 1910. The other, grafted vines, were planted in 1930. Each vine gives just one cluster. And the grapes are tiny. Only 50 percent of each grape is juice—and not because of shriveling, either.”

Tasting the 2007 Magma #6 was a lesson in how appearances can be deceptive. Since it was pale garnet in color (“2007 was a light-color vintage”), I wasn’t expecting much flavor impact or density. Big mistake. The nose was Nerello Mascalese’s signature wild cherry. But the mid-palate density was like a black hole, with a liquorous texture and a sense of near-infinite length.

A sample of the 2006 Magma #5 displayed similar characteristics, but because it was from such a hot vintage, explained Mr. Cornelissen, it fermented with some residual sugar remaining, about 5 grams per liter. Even this wine—a richer, stronger statement—was only medium garnet in hue. The residual sweetness was slight, but noticeable—and rather appealing, too.

Is Magma a great wine? Good question. It’s an original wine, a red like no other in my experience. But winegrowers like Frank Cornelissen aren’t really interested in conventional notions of “greatness.”

This is the nub of it: How do you define “greatness”? Of course, the usual elements of complexity, balance, proportion and that indefinable yet unmistakable sense of uniqueness (dare I say terroir?) make up most of the equation. The French, by the way, would insist that a great wine be “harmonious,” a word and a concept that I don’t think is part of California’s or Australia’s wine vocabulary or aesthetic.

Winegrowers like Mr. Cornelissen are now stretching our understanding of “greatness.” Mr. Cornelissen’s best red wine, Magma, is like no other version of Nerello Mascalese, nor any other red wine of my experience. It does deliver the complexity and characterfulness conventionally understood as a prerequisite to the acclamation “great.”

But the element of intellectualism cannot be ignored. Is a wine like Magma “great” not only because of its sensorily pleasurable qualities, but also because of the winemaker’s own revisionist notion of the possibilities of wine beauty, brought to life by an extreme non-interventionism? Is it telling us something about wine and the Earth that we might not otherwise know?

Make no mistake: We’ve seen this before. We’ve seen it in the dramatically revisionist winemaking in Barolo and Barbaresco that took place in the 1980s and ’90s. Today’s mainstream Barolos were yesterday’s radical—and to the eyes and palates of traditionalists, insupportable—distortions of previous notions of goodness and greatness.

We’ve seen it in German Rieslings as they’ve transitioned from sweet to dry, and in Alsatian Rieslings as they tiptoe from drier to sweeter.

And we’re seeing it right now in the various Crazy Club white wines made with extended skin contact, a type of dry white wine that at least two generations of wine drinkers—if not more—have never experienced.

Recently, I served a 2007 Santa Chiara Bianco from Paolo Bea, the great Umbria producer, to a French winegrower. A blend of Grechetto, Malvasia, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Garganega, this extended skin-contact dry white dazzled the French producer. Even a professional such as he, with decades of experience, had never previously tasted or even imagined such a dry white wine. It was a revelation.

Perhaps Mr. Cornelissen himself offers at least part of an answer, one that suggests that the life of the winemaking mind has its limits.

“When I first arrived here, in 2000, I used to bottle late,” said Mr. Cornelissen. “That was in what I call my ‘intellectual’ phase. I didn’t want to have any fruitiness in my wines. I wanted them to be highly evolved, like old-style Burgundies and Barolos. Now I’ve changed my mind,” he said. “Those wines were too intellectual. Now I like some fruit.”

Matt Kramer, author of seven books on wine, has contributed to Wine Spectator regularly since 1985.

Heitor Almeida
NY —  December 1, 2009 1:32pm ET
Hi Matt

It is great to see your first column, I have followed all your books and columns - you are certainly my favorite wine writer! I hope you write them often.
Great topic for the first column. I have recently had the Etna wines from Terre Nere, which are a less radical introduction to Etna, but still with lots of character.

best, Heitor

Rob Lentini
Alexandria, Virginia —  December 1, 2009 4:56pm ET
Congrats on your first column. Good to see you online. Speaking of Cornelissen, I have a 2006 Magma "R", which I understand is a reserve version of the Magma. But I don't see how you do a reserve version of a 1000 bottle wine. Is this a wine you are aware of?
Jim Mason
St. John's —  December 1, 2009 6:55pm ET
Extended skin contact white wines might not be for everyone. I like my whites clean, crisp, fruity and mineral driven. I like Burgundies. And Northeast Italian whites. But I'll try anything once.
Matt Kramer
Oregon —  December 1, 2009 7:35pm ET
To All: Many thanks for all of your comments and kind words. They're much appreciated.

Mr. Lentini: I'm afraid that I did not properly cite the full name of the 2006 Magma that I wrote about in the column. I checked my notes and it is indeed Magma #5 "R" (for Reserve)that I tasted and described above. I apologize for not being more exact.

You're quite right: it would be quite a job to make a Reserve bottling from something that starts out with just 1,000 bottles! Good catch. Thanks.
Anthony Wilson
Right now, Warsaw, Poland —  December 2, 2009 1:02am ET
Great column, Matt! Glad you made the trek chez Cornelissen! I believe that wines like this need to get on people's radar screens and into their glasses! Keep your informative posts coming. Ready to read the next one!
John Lawrence
Michigan —  December 2, 2009 12:31pm ET
Nice column, Matt--I wonder, though, about your use of the word "winegrowing"--did you coin this yourself? Since it's literally nonsensical (only grapes are grown; wine is made from grapes, of course), it seems inadvisable, though I see how it serves to "shortcut" (there, I turned a noun into a verb!) the process. In technical writing about wine, though, it seems out of place (having studied both viticulture and enology, I'm an advocate of keeping them separate).
Matt Kramer
Oregon —  December 2, 2009 1:10pm ET
Mr. Lawrence: Glad you liked the column. And I'm glad you apparently like words, too. (Count me in.)

As for the word "winegrower", I most certainly didn't coin the word. It's a commonly and widely used term. I can see how, taken literally, it might seem nonsensical.

That said, I believe that the word came into use to distinguish between growers whose grapes are intended for raisins or for the table and those who grow grapes expressly for wine.

Many, er, winegrowers prefer this word--Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association, Oregon Winegrowers Association, among dozens of other examples--because it underscores the the lack of division between growing grapes and "making" wine, i.e., that wines are really "made" in the vineyard.

The French word "vigneron" captures this. A vigneron specifically is someone who grows grapes in order to make wine--in other words, a winegrower.

Donn G Todd
Cascade, MD, USA —  December 2, 2009 4:53pm ET
Matt.

Old friends note. I'm sure I remember you from many years ago at the home of Woody and Vicki Sears in Bodaga Bay CA. It was at the time you were making the decision to go or not go to Wine Spectator.

I have been getting Spectator for many years and enjoying your articles. Every time I see your picture it haunts me. Has my memory failed? No comments about hair.

Donn Todd
Matt Kramer
Oregon —  December 2, 2009 5:30pm ET
Mr. Todd: Well, my hair is largely (and long) gone, so maybe my memory is too. I'm afraid that I don't recall meeting you all those years ago. But perhaps we did. No matter. It's nice to meet you now!

I'm glad you've been keeping up with all my columns over the years. Thank you for that.
Scott Bailey
North Carolina —  December 2, 2009 7:18pm ET
Matt, enjoyed the column and especially enjoyed the three Sicilian wines you presented at the New York Wine Experience. The sweet (or "rich" as I think you put it) wine was a highlight of the weekend for me. Cheers.
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  December 2, 2009 7:19pm ET
Mr. Kramer,

I'm happy to join the list of those who've enjoyed your WnSp magazine column and are glad to have another chance to hear from you. For those who don't follow your newspaper columns, I'd recommend those as well.

In case your ears were burning a month or so ago, I put you in my short list of wine folk who influence my buying. The link to La Spinetta's newsletter is below.

http://www.la-spinetta.com/One%20Liter%20Club/News%20letter%20October%202009.htm
John Lawrence
Michigan —  December 3, 2009 7:11am ET
Hi again--a quick review seems to indicate that a vigneron is only someone who works in a vineyard; this implies growing grapes for wine, of course, and with the crucial role of vineyard management in winemaking it makes sense that a vigneron would often be a winemaker. The English "winegrower" seems a poor translation, though; personally, I dislike it (as should be obvious). Wine isn't grown any more than any other product of human activity--kitchen cabinets, say.
Johnny Espinoza Esquivel
Wine World —  December 3, 2009 1:58pm ET
Mr. Kramer:

I religiously follow your column on each single copy of WS Magazine. Good, really good indeed to have you "on line".

Thank you so much for this your first entry. Nice, nice topic. I wish I could taste Cornelissen wines.

Keep up the good writing!
Scott Elder
The Dalles, OR —  December 5, 2009 9:44pm ET
Matt – I really liked this piece because it cuts to the core of what I believe is becoming harder and harder to find – wines that come from someone’s passion instead of someone’s desire to achieve a pre-determined flavor profile and critical acclaim. Wines with distinction and originality might not always appeal to our senses like a hot fudge sundae does, but they often make us take pause to really think about the wine. They are memorable.

http://www.thegrandedalles.com/
John Leclair
South Florida —  December 9, 2009 9:06pm ET
Very interesting column Matt. I read with interest as I have several Cornelissen wines in the pipeline to arrive in the spring. I had heard much about this individual and am even more impatient for delivery than before. Thanks!
Matt Kramer
Oregon —  December 11, 2009 11:51am ET
To All: I received a private e-mail from a reader in London who very courteously pointed out what he considered factual errors in my reportage on Frank Cornelissen. Of course, I was disturbed to hear this. No journalist likes making errors or appearing sloppy or unreliable. However, mistakes can happen, especially in the course of a long, multi-hour interview where the scribbling gets frantic.

Anyway, I thought that you should know about this. And also, I thought that you might like to see how some “factual” errors turn out to be, well, more misunderstandings due to possibly vague explanations on the producer’s side and less than ideal follow-up during the interview on the reporter’s side.

Upon hearing from the reader, I wrote to Mr. Cornelissen outlining the points in question, as follows:

Dear Frank,

I don't know if you've had a chance to reading the column I wrote about you. It's gotten quite a good and highly positive response. However, it appears that I may have made some inadvertent factual errors that--if this is the case--I would like to correct as soon as possible.

A reader alerted me to what he believes are the following factual errors:

1. The 2008 Contadino that I tasted tasted was No.6, not No.4, as I had written. My notes read "2008 Contadino #4. But perhaps I mis-heard or simply wrote it down incorrectly.

Mr. Cornelissen replies: “Indeed, the Contadino of harvest 2008 is the 6th edition. I started in 2003 producing this wine (Contadino 1) and have produced a Contadino every year since. With this first Contadino, I think I have started changing from my intellectual period so to say into a more agricultural, rustic phase. Now I feel I am moving into a more spiritual period. I will obviously always be related to my roots and transformation periods.”

2. The grapes in Contadino include Alicante--which I did have in my notes. But I assumed that Alicante referred to Alicante Bouschet. The reader says that "Alicante" in this context is actually a synonym for Grenache. Is that the case?

Mr. Cornelissen replies: “Producers here are always talking about "Grenache" when relating to this varietal. To my opinion, the Alicante we have here is the Bouschet. Darker in color. I have planted some 100 vines of the real Grenache from southern Rhone and in the 2009 Contadino there will be at least 20 kg. in the mix! So I have here Alicante Bouschet and Grenache.”

3. That Contadino does not spend any time in amphorae. That only the Munjebel Rosso and Magma see elevage in the amphorae. Again, is that correct?

Mr Cornelissen replies: “This is correct. Contadino and Munjebel Bianco ferment in 500 to 1.000 liter HD/PE [high-density polyethelene] tubs and then go into HD/PE decanting tanks where they stay for approx 3-5 months for resting before being bottled. Munjebel Rosso ferments in the same tubs and then goes into the epoxy treated amphoras for aging. Magma Rosso ferments and ages entirely into the amphoras.”

Mr. Cornelissen also appended some additional thoughts that I think are worth reading:

“Sorry to have you waiting for the reply... busy with the olives and in the cellar. Fermentations are finishing faster this year than usual.

“Don't worry about mistakes as I also often make these when people ask me a question regarding a technicality in my production. I give mostly a generic answer because if I go into details, people don't follow anymore and so what seems logical becomes very confusing for the person asking the question. Vintages and fermentations for example are always different in reactions. I also need to act/react to this.

“But go and explain why I sometimes do "this" and not "that". It is not an excuse to an approximate way of working; it is the reality of being sensitive to ever changing vintages. And it is I guess the artisan's job to react perfectly to this change. That is also why we have a beautiful but complex "métier".

“And that is one of the reasons why it is also hard to find a good journalist to write correctly about these issues. And you are one of them, I feel.

“Although I don't agree with your point of view on the "white" wine I produce; look at it as it is neither white nor red nor "fluo" or whatever: all my wines are simply wine. They have different color like different people. But all have a distinct origin! But this we need to re-discuss and taste when you are back here some day!”


Evandro Pereira
Sao Paulo —  January 4, 2010 1:06pm ET
Dear Matt,
I might have missed it somehow, but I don't recall seeing your 'wines of the year" list for 2009. It's always good to learn what you single out from 12 months of tastings. Last year, for example, you opened my eyes on the great wines of catherine et Pierre Breton...Thanks
Matt Kramer
Oregon —  January 4, 2010 2:54pm ET
Mr. Pereira: Many thanks for your kind words about my annual “Wines of the Year” column. It did indeed appear in the December 31, 2009 issue of Wine Spectator. You can find it in the print edition as well as online at http://www.winespectator.com/magazine/show/id/41275.

Thanks again—and Happy New Year to you and everyone else.

Matt

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