Weighing Greatness Against Originality

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

Opinion

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