May 24, 2023|In News, Wondermakers, Wines

Red Hot 'n' Smokin' - Newly Arrived Wines from Legendary Frank Cornelissen

Frank Cornelissen Winery

“What can I say, Frank Cornelissen is at the top of his game, [] and I can honestly say that I have never seen such precision, purity, and consistency as I’ve seen tasting the last few vintages. It all seems to have come to an apex with the 2019 crus.”

Eric Guido, for Vinous

Seen as the rebellious rock star winemaker for many in the world of wine, three years ago we excitedly blogged about the arrival of Frank Cornelissen, the demi-god of natural wines, to our D&N Portfolio. With all his wild and sometimes zany ideas, Frank has never been one to rest on his laurels even after quickly reaching the lauded status of the Godfather of Natural Wines. But that was never the endgame for Frank. Evolution, innovation, and revelation are part of his questing personality – and also within his wines’ DNA.

Back in the early days of the natural wine movement, everyone was beating a drum of how minimalist you could go. And Frank Cornelissen was exalted by the new vanguard as the ultimate anti-hero naturalista! Today, Cornelissen concedes that his first ten years were very experimental and that he took things too close to the edge.

“My wines used to be anti-wines”

admits Cornelissen

When the Belgian ex-Fine wine dealer came to Etna in 2001, his vision was that this is one of the few locations on Earth where wine could be made without any manipulation. Mistakes were made as he learned along the way, but with time, the style of Frank Cornelissen became renowned.

Still today, this is a winery that practices non-interventionist principles across their twenty-four hectares and eschews overhandling of the wines in the winery and cellar. However, there have been a number of changes to the process. Let’s check out the new vintage releases and the unrelenting journey of the Mt. Etna maestro himself, Frank Cornelissen.

[Cornelissen is] “the most driven, ardent, zealous, perfection-oriented winemaker in the world”

Tom Hyland, The World of Fine Wine

This Man is on a Mission

Frank Cornelissen

From the outset, Cornelissen had a dogged determination to make fine wine on Mt. Etna, to create a true expression of this distinctive place. His initial philosophy was never to use sulphur dioxide (SO²) in his wines. In every winemaking decision, his aim was for absolute purity. His uncompromising and often extreme, and always creative visionary efforts to maintain the highest level of cellar hygiene without using SO² made him an idol of the natural wine world. However, over the past 22 years, trailblazing Cornelissen has needed to evolve. He has modified his thinking and methodology of this earlier philosophy.

On a visit to Bordeaux during an en primeur campaign he met Guillaume Thienpont of the esteemed estate Vieux Château Certain of Pomerol. He learned that Thienpont did some consulting, specifically with the aim of minimising bacterial infection, a bugbear of the no-sulphites Cornelissen. Thienpont subsequently visited Cornelissen in Etna, tasted his wines, and started working closely with his agronomist Stefano Amadeo. This has been a major turning point for such a perfectionist as Cornelissen—who has always forged his own path, relying entirely on inspired intuition and his own painstaking research and experiments.

An initial outcome of the collaboration with Thienpont is that Cornelissen has decided to break the natural wine taboo and is now using minimal amounts of SO² during racking and before bottling.

“Quality- focused with natural being the inspiration, not the destination”

Jancis Robinson MW on Frank Cornelissen.

The New Philosophy in Practice

Frank Cornelissen Winery

The 2019 vintage is the first that Cornelissen has released under the new regime. SO² is a standard preservative that has been used in winemaking for centuries to protect grapes, must, and wine in its various stages against harmful yeasts and bacteria, as well as the negative impacts of oxygen. The decisions about whether to use SO², how much to use, and when, are open to infinite debate.

In a hot climate, however, where pH levels are high, the grapes, must, and wine have less natural in-built protection than lower-pH wines from cooler climates. The amount of SO² also needs to be higher than in a cooler climate for it to be effective. Cornelissen is adding 10mg/L at the first racking, with total SO² ending up at around 30mg/L, keeping free SO² at a minimum, under 5mg/L. He pointed out that his beloved Nerello Mascalese “likes to eat SO²” so free SO² levels are always exceptionally low.

“You have to be intellectually honest,” Cornelissen explains. “I am searching for quality and precision, so I either have to play with the pH or add SO². People think Etna wines are high acid, but it’s the minerals and the other components that give it that tension.”

Justifying his evolution, Cornelissen says that “natural wine was a counter-reaction to an excess of enology: too much wood, too much extraction, too many chemicals. Natural wine will never be a category. To make it a category is to put it in a prison, which is the opposite of individualism. It’s uncategorizable, which is its greatest asset.”

Cornelissen considers his SO²-free winemaking experience was an extreme that now enables him to make decisions he would never have had the knowledge to make otherwise.

“If you haven’t gone over the edge, how do you know where the edge is? Now, after 20 years, I know where the edge is”

Frank Cornelissen

Cornelissen has already built a new, colder cellar for protecting his white wine by keeping it stable at 12°C. “My white-wine model is Alsatian,” he explains. “They have volume and character, but without the cold room they become too evolved.”

He has also introduced a customized de-stemmer and a sorting table that is constantly disinfected with ultraviolet light. Fastidious selection saved the 2019 vintage. Customized pumps, a modified press, ozone machines integrated with the air-conditioning system, specialized nozzles on all the tanks, and a state-of the-art bottling line attest to Cornelissen’s newfound fascination with cutting-edge technology.

In Frank’s own words he sees it thus: “High-personality wines are not high-precision wines, but high-precision wines have the possibility of being boring. To put some of yourself into the wine—the right amount of quirk, organizing the right amount of chaos, giving it that edge— is why making wine requires a split personality, 50 percent intuitive, 50 percent rational.”

In reviewing his 2019 vintage releases, Jancis Robinson sums up his new regime: “The amazing thing is that tiny doses of SO² very early block risk of mousiness and brett [Brettanomyces], while allowing happy ferments, and bottling with relatively low totals. Having taken this step, it’s like a load has been lifted from his shoulders.”

According to Cornelissen, in this evolutionary process, his objectives have not changed; he has merely changed his strategy for achieving them. He still believes in the original recipe—old vines and low yields. Ultimately, the subtle changes he has introduced enable the fruit of the vineyards to shine even more brightly.

Frank Cornelissen Winery

“The greatest wines are the wines with personality. They have flaws that give them character. Great wines always have a quirk”

Frank Cornelissen

Cornelissen is a fan of fibreglass, using neutral epoxy tanks, which he says works well for his minimal interventionist technique – no unwanted tannin added from wood which is better for Nerello.

In his experiments with clay amphorae, he has also decided – after a process of trial and error – that the inside of the vessels must be coated so that the oxygen exchange is reduced. Of course, his wines with more tannic structure are aged in epoxy-coated terracotta amphorae buried up to their necks in ground volcanic rock.

As for whole-bunch fermentation, it was 2018 that marked a big change of policy. Obviously, with his perfectionist sensibilities he started with 15% whole bunch in 2019. Then in 2018 he felt you could sense the whole bunch element but not in the more concentrated 2020. So, for 2021 there was 20% whole bunch, and it was perfectly absorbed.

Cornelissen’s mantra has always been for ‘precision’ in his single-vineyard wines, for the detailed distinctions that define them to be revealed across the vintages. He has always been a remarkable nonconformist, yet now allowing himself to accept bravely the necessity to modify his approach when needed to unwrap an unblemished expression in all his wines.

“As even many of the most devoted aficionados of natural wine now acknowledge—because they have, unfortunately, learned from experience—oenological flaws only distort terroir; they do not reveal it”

Robin Lee, The World of Fine Wine

The 2019 Vintage

Frank Cornelissen Winery

This was a challenging year that—thanks to Cornelissen’s extreme sorting in the vineyard ahead of harvest—produced pure, clean, impeccable fruit, although with many small berries due to difficult weather conditions during flowering. Further, they carried out a second meticulous sorting selection, reducing production volumes by nearly 30 percent.

Notwithstanding the hot summer, the cool weather in the weeks before harvest contributed depth and complexity, as well as preserving natural acidity for this classic vintage. Coming in at less than 14% ABV, the wines are significantly lower in alcohol than previous vintages.

All up, the 2019s are concentrated, fruit-driven, and vibrant—a “Pinot-ish vintage,” as Cornelissen calls it—with tremendous elegance.

“A man on a mission to make pure & vineyard-expressive wines”

Julia Harding MW, for

Born of soils formed by prehistoric lava flows, Frank Cornelissen’s latest New Zealand releases carry the seriousness of many of the world’s greatest wines while simultaneously tasting like nothing you’ve ever had.

When wine geeks speak of Frank Cornelissen, they get reverential, almost mystical, in tone. One sip of this stuff and you’ll see why; it’s bottled volcanic energy, ready to WOW right now and reward years in your cellar.

Load up fast! (Stocks are extremely limited)

Frank Cornelissen Winery

Frank Cornelissen - Explosive Wines of Energetic Purity & Precision

Frank Cornelissen - Magma Rosso

Frank Cornelissen Magma Rosso 2019

The Nerello Mascalese fruit for Magma hails from the Barbabecchi cru in the North valley between 870-910 metres, with its ungrafted vines that are over 100 years old. After a sixty-day maceration, the wine is vinified completely in neutral epoxy tanks.

97+ points “It’s almost impossible to pull away from the 2019 Nerello Mascalese Magma Rosso, with its beguiling bouquet of white pepper-tinged dusty rose offset by nuances of tangerine, pomegranate, and the slightest hint of animal musk. This is a seriously textural expression, with smooth contours and admirable weight that’s perfectly balanced by stimulating acidity. Its fruit is decidedly red and sapid, yet with violet-tinged inner florals and sweet minerality. While structured, the 2019 maintains fantastic energy throughout the long yet remarkably fresh finale, as licorice and hints of hard candies slowly taper off into oblivion.” Drinking Window: 2023-30

Eric Guido, Vinous
(This one gets our D&N Fine Wines recommendation stamp to it 100%!)

96 points “This is the icon wine that Cornelissen has made since his first vintage from vines planted in 1910, now more than a century old. Lean, restrained, and transparent but dense, with a firm, structured character, and taut tannins. Tensile and throbbing with pent-up energy, like scooped-up dewdrops from cherry skins served over black lava rock, like something there and not there, this is a wine you can never quite pin down. More of an experience than just a wine.” Drink 2022-2030

Robin Lee, The World of Fine Wine

Frank Cornelissen MunJebel Rosso 2019

The Munjebel is a blend of fruit from Frank Cornelissen’s vineyards across the northern valley of Etna. It aims to please, and it will excel at doing so through short-term cellaring.

92 points “Seduces with a rich and sweetly scented bouquet of crushed black cherries, dried roses, and cloves. It’s silky in texture, enveloping all that it touches with ripe red fruits and spices, nicely framed by saturating minerality, as inner violet florals form toward the close. There are tannins here, but they don’t get in the way; instead, they create a perfectly dry platform where notes of lavender, plum and allspice hover above.” Drinking Window: 2021 – 2027
EricGuido, Vinous

Frank Cornelissen - MunJebel Rosso FM

Frank Cornelissen MunJebel Rosso FM (Feudo di Mezzo Sottana) 2019

The Munjebel FM is 100% Nerello Mascalese produced from the lower elevations of the Feudo di Mezzo cru.

95 points “The entrancing 2019 Munjebel Rosso FM blossoms in the glass, with a dusty mix of sweet minty herbs and bright cherry complemented by a hint of cinnamon sugar. Its textures are like pure silk slowly draped across the palate, creamy, smooth, yet lifted and refined, delivering ripe red and hints of blue fruit under an air of lavender and violets. A pleasant inner sweet lingers on, along with a coating of fine tannins, as residual acids and hints of sour citrus maintain a lovely balance. The word “radiant” comes to mind and stays with me throughout the entire experience. Bravo. This is pure class.” Drinking Window: 2023 – 2028
Eric Guido, Vinous

Frank Cornelissen - MunJebel Rosso MC (Monte Colla)

Frank Cornelissen MunJebel Rosso MC (Monte Colla) 2019

The Rosso MC is from the steeply-terraced Monte Colla vineyard, with its seventy five-year-old Nerello Mascalese vines planted in sandy clay soils.

94 points “is deep and inward in character, but also remarkably pretty. This dark beauty wafts up with dried cherries and crushed rocks complemented by nuances of rosemary and balsam. It greets the palate with the silkiest of textures and ripe wild berry fruits, yet with a core of nervous acidity that builds an energetic tension. This is like the proverbial iron fist in the velvet glove, tapering off long with talcum-like tannins, as sweet tobacco and lavender tones fade over a contrasting savory bitter twang of balsamic spice. It’s an utter beauty, and it’s already showing so well.” Drinking Window: 2023 – 2028
Eric Guido, Vinous

Frank Cornelissen - MunJebel Rosso CR Contrada Campo Re

Frank Cornelissen MunJebel CR Contrada Campo Re 2019

The Campo Re hails from the western part of the northern slope of Etna at around 735 metres. The wine undergoes indigenous fermentation, followed by fifty days of maceration on skins and eighteen months of refinement in neutral epoxy tanks.

93+ points “Woodsy herbs and wet stone take on an air of white smoke and peppery florals as the 2019 Munjebel Rosso CR (Campo Re) unfolds in the glass. This takes its time, slowly opening, as wild strawberries, stems, and all, lazily come to the fore. It’s seamlessly silky and pliant upon entry, cool-toned as well, with a mounting saturation of red berries toward the close, adding an almost-chewy sensation. While structured with angular tannins, there’s a burst of inner sweetness that adds balance, as notes of fresh tobacco mix with licorice and hard red candies to create a finish that seems to linger on and on. The CR may be the longest lived of Cornelissen’s 2019 Rossos, but also the one that will take the most time to come around.”  Drinking Window: 2024 – 2032
Eric Guido, Vinous

Frank Cornelissen - MunJebel Rosso VA Cuveé Vigne Alte

Frank Cornelissen MunJebel VA Cuveé (Vigne Alte) 2019

So hot off the docks, we’re still waiting on the reviewers to release their thoughts, but here’s some reviews of the 2019 release…

97 points “Here we are with ungrafted 90-year-old vines at altitudes of between 870–1,000m. Complex and multi-layered, with pistachio notes overlaying pristine damson and juicy pomegranate, with dark notes of savoury bitter greens, black garlic, dandelion leaves, and nettles. Wild and elemental in character, with long and intense flavours, this is a fine example of Cornelissen’s signature style.”
Robin Lee, The World of Fine Wine

16.5 /20 “A blend of ungrafted Nerello Mascalese from Cornelissen’s three highest vineyards (hence vigne alte): Tartaraci at 1,000m at Bronte, Barbabecchi at 910m and Rampante Soprana at 870m at Solicchiata. First made in 2010. Bright crimson with a restrained nose. Backward and very tannic. Not to my taste – too introvert and tough at the moment – but it may get there in the end. Certainly ambitious!” Drink 2025 – 2035
16.5/20 Jancis Robinson

Frank Cornelissen - MunJebel Bianco

Frank Cornelissen MunJebel Bianco 2019

The Munjebel Bianco wine is made in a super complex way with a brief 4-day skin maceration, giving the wine some density and tannins whilst also bringing out the wine’s stony aromatics and smoky taste. Stunning! Electric!

16.5 /20 “Blend of Carricante and Grecanico Dorato. (He is not such a fan of the former, finding it too lean at 100%.) Not much nose. Quite rich, tangy, and surprisingly evolved aromatically. It has the same grainy texture as the reds! Pear flavours inside quite a framework.” Drink 2021 – 2024
Jancis Robinson MW

96 points “A half-and-half blend of Carricante and Grecanico Dorato, this wine is given weekly bâtonnage and has a full-bodied, weighty character that is very un-Italian. Pear skins, honeyed oats, almond milk, and a raspy, herbal, wild-grass character carries over on a long finish. This wine is unique, as well as enjoyable.” Drink 2020–25
Robin Lee, The World of Fine Wine

Frank Cornelissen - Susucaru Rosato

Coming Soon: Susucaru Rosato 2022

ETA: September 2023

Starting with a “pied-de-cuve” using only indigenous yeasts and skin contact for about 10 days.An intense pink tending to raspberry red. Warm aromas of pepper, coriander, cloves, vanilla, tobacco, and leather. A refreshing wine that is fruity and vibrant.

– Tasting Note

“…the wines we tasted were precise and expressive, the Nerello Mascalese, his main red variety, transmitting the origin of the wines without any deviation due to winemaking. He is now set on the course of what he calls ‘high-fidelity’ winemaking.”

Julia Harding MW, for

The Mt. Etna & Nerello Mascalese Enigma

Frank Cornelissen Winery

Cornelissen has always been a bit of a mad genius – who else would have embarked on a risky vinous venture in a little-known region with a local grape variety, Nerello Mascalese, that was virtually unknown outside Sicily.

At 1,000 metres up on the north slopes of Europe’s most active volcano, Cornelissen purchased centenarian vines that had originally been planted during the phylloxera crisis. (Phylloxera cannot survive in Etna’s igneous – solidified lava & magma – soils.)

Interestingly, a little known fact was that in the early 20th century, the wines produced here were exported to bolster the stricken harvests of Burgundy, transported down the side of the volcano on a specially constructed train. Once France started grafting vines onto American rootstocks to combat the disease, the old-style ungrafted vines that were planted here were all but abandoned.

Against the dramatic backdrop of the always smouldering volcano, the almost alpine setting has historically been divided up by the local shepherds and landholders into contrade, with each having a different mineral profile determined by the volcanic eruptions and lava flows that formed them. Their inimitable identities and savoury flavour profiles means that there are 133 defined contrade on Etna. Frank Cornelissen’s single vineyard crus strongly align to these contrade creating wines with distinct aromas and personalities.

The searing light of Sicily is flushed by the cooling influence of altitude within the environs of Mt. Etna creating a particularly unique terroir. The altitude refreshes the air and brings the diurnal boost to the flavour profiles and acidity.

Since Cornelissen arrived, he has been followed to this vinous paradise by scores of other ambitious winemakers, Franchetti, Occhipinti, De Grazia, Russo, to name a few. The Etna DOC of Sicily (established in 1968) has since experienced a renaissance and is now perhaps Italy’s most dynamic wine region.

Frank Cornelissen Winery

Nerello Mascalese is the undisputed prince of the grape varieties growing on mystical Mt. Etna. Located on the eastern coast of Sicily, the Nerello Mascalese grape at high altitude becomes imbued with extraordinary nuances partly due to the soil, rich in ashes, mineral salts, and sand creating a wine of intense flavour and opulent shades that make it truly exceptional. Nerello mascalese is often said to provide some of the excitement and style of Barolo’s Nebbiolo, while the vine is both drought and heat tolerant.

The flavour profile of Nerello mascalese is characterised by red berry fruits, wild strawberries, and cherries, often in a wild/sour spectrum, along with woodsy herbs, dried florals, and minerals. The grape is often blended with a little nerello cappuccio, which tends to add a little colour, alcohol, and some riper fruit notes. Wines made from nerello mascalese are usually quite structured, with high acid and fairly grippy tannins a feature.

While nerello mascalese crops up in 24 DOCs and IGPs in Italy, it is certainly on Etna that it reaches its peak expression, making wines that are often compared in stature to the great wines of Piedmont: Barolo and Barbaresco. Truth is that the wines of Etna are very much distinctive and individual expressions.

Cornelissen freely admits now that his first wines were angry wines. He said he always wanted to make “liquid rock” wines, which he’s cleverly achieved whilst determinedly filtering out the excessive parts.

Here are Frank Cornelissen’s latest NZ releases which are truly born of soils formed by prehistoric lava flows, carrying the seriousness of many of the world’s greatest wines while simultaneously tasting like nothing you’ve ever had. When wine geeks speak of Frank Cornelissen, they get reverential, almost mystical, in tone. One sip of this stuff and you’ll see why; it’s bottled volcanic energy, ready to WOW right now and reward years in your cellar. Load up fast! Stock is limited!