Frank Cornelissen: Etna is weird and wonderful too.

Frank Cornelissen and his vines- Image from www.sedimentary  

I have been reading about Frank Cornelissen for some time now- the seriously “naturalist” who makes wine in Etna (one of my favorite wine regions).  I am intrigued by the man who decided to buy land on Mount Etna because it reminded him of Georgia and Armenia- the cradle of civilization and the birthright of wine-making (it’s cold and inhospitable in this part of Sicily, but it’s authentic).  Added to that, Frank Cornelissen doesn’t use any chemically modern winemaking techniques.  His wines are made from fermented grapes.  That’s it.

Thanks to Italian Wine Guru, Kirk Peterson of B&B Hospitality Group, I was able to taste one of these wines for the first time last night.

 The Contadino Rosso is a field blend of white and red local grapes.  It is a “Vino da Tavola”, which means it technically has not recorded vintage on the label.  However Kirk was able to decipher the lot number on the side of the bottle and declared it a 2007.  The wine is cloudy, obviously unfiltered, and a vivid cranberry-red.  It comes in a clear (read: what you see, is what you get) bottle, with one simple, transparent label affixed.  I don’t even think there was a plastic wrapper over the cork.  Everything about this wine screams raw, un-fooled-around-with, and natural.

Immediately upon putting my nose near the glass I could smell the tangy, yeasty aromas of wine-still-fermenting.  Kirk keeps the wine at a fairly low temperature it was very cool, almost cold, when he first opened the bottle.  There were some initial vegetal notes- like steamed green beans or cooked squash.  Then the spicy “fermenting” notes took on a kind of pickle-juice, dill, mustard seed aroma and then continued on to show a little leathery, tea leaf aroma.  In a word, volatile.  In two words, fleetingly complex.

On the palate the wine was startlingly acidic- but the cooler temperature kept it from being uncomfortable.  I quite enjoyed the fresh, under-ripe strawberry flavors and the sticky fruit tannins that coated my mouth.  It almost tasted like a hard cider or a sour lambic ale.  There is something primitive about this wine- something wild and untamed.

As we continued to study the wine, it kept changing.  From pleasingly tart to almost unbearably sour- and then back again.  Dusty, ashy notes, then flowery dried carnations and mountain sage.    Like it or not, this wine is alive.

I am happy to have experienced this wine.  It was difficult; a challenge to my palate and my notions about what I like in a wine.  However it was also very simple and very real- a tangible expression of fermenting grapes.  Either way, I think if you really love wine you need experiences like this in your tasting memories to help ground the development of your palate.  In the process of understanding of wine, we are all constant students.  Wines like Frank Cornelissen’s may have more to teach us, if we’ll listen.