Some winemakers have a reputation that precedes them. Frank Cornelissen is one.
When you spend a couple of hours with him, at the winery or in the vineyard, the pronouncements tumble down in droves. Cornelissen has strongly held views on everything, from his dislike of oak (“I love trees; I prefer to leave the wood where it belongs”) and stainless steel (“I’d use titanium if it were affordable”) to biodynamic preparations (“They shouldn’t be used systemically, only as a curative”). Asked whether he’s a natural winemaker, he quips, “I don’t make natural wine, I just make wine with nothing added.”
Cornelissen has eschewed the use of all sulfites and other winemaking additives since he started his project, on the slopes of Sicily’s Mt. Etna, in 2001. He’s become infamous for his almost fanatical, purist approach and fierce intellect.
But his obsession has also fuelled a constant evolution in winemaking within his functional, concrete bunker of a winery. Working without any sulfites at all demands a rigorous approach. Original unlined Spanish amphorae gave way to epoxy-lined vessels; these will give way to concrete eggs in due course. Hygiene remains paramount to guard against infections or unwanted bacteria in the wines; Cornelissen’s weapon of choice is ionized air.
The resulting wines range from rustic and assertive at the entry level—Susucaru, Contadino, and MunJebel Rosso and Bianco—to the super-refined and complex single-vineyard MunJebel bottlings and Magma, his top wine made from Nerello Mascalese. These are brutally honest wines, stripped-down expressions of Etna’s extreme terroir and of the vintage conditions—for better or for worse.
Cornelissen is not a man who likes to take chances, so in 2005 when he noticed quality issues with large batches of cork, he started investigating alternative closures. Crown caps proved good for freshness but poor for evolution. Glass stoppers were also ruled out due to a design hinging around a thin plastic seal. “I honestly prefer forty-three millimeters of substance to close a bottle rather than a mere ‘slice’ of a two-millimeter-thick O-ring,” he says.
Today, with the exception of Magma, all of the estate’s wines are sealed with Nomacorcs. Cornelissen feels this is not only a sound choice for preserving the wine and limiting bottle variation, but also has merits on environmental grounds—an important factor in his ethos.
Cornelissen isn’t the only low-interventionist winemaker using Nomacorcs. Hirotake Ooka, the unlikely Japanese winemaker and founder of Domaine de la Grande Colline in St-Péray, is also a convert, as are Catherine Roussel and Didier Barrouillet of Domaine Clos Roche Blanche in the Loire. All of these producers work organically or biodynamically, without adding sulfites. All three also share a passion for authenticity and honesty in their production methods, which extends to using the most sustainable, environment friendly processes possible.
Making wine in this way is a bit like walking a tightrope: not impossible, but challenging, and requiring intense dedication and practice to succeed. Uncertainties abound: How will the weather influence this year’s vintage? Will fermentation go smoothly? Will malolactic happen quickly enough? Will unwanted bacteria creep in somewhere?
I can well imagine that having navigated through all of that uncertainty, a closure that’s one hundred percent guaranteed not to fail is a welcome blessing.