Frank Cornelissen

I set out from Palermo and traveled anti-clockwise with escapades to Pantelleria and the Eolian islands. Sicily is marvelous, the Greek ruins and rich architectural heritage often enchanting, but Sicily remained stark, hot, barren, not what I usually associate with great vineyard sites. That is until I arrived on the north side of the Etna volcano.

The terroir on the north side of Etna is unique.
Vineyards are planted at an altitude between 600 and 1000 meters.

The main road winds its way seemingly endlessly up from Taormina and Catania. This solitary road is the lifeline between the population living on the volcano and the big cities below. It is the road that hikers travel to reach the point at which they ascend to bubbling craters, and since the turn of the millennium it has become the thoroughfare for a quiet viticultural hotspot on the world wine map. Back in 2002 hardly anyone had heard of Etna Rosso. Last year, Jancis Robinson and Antonio Galloni were incorporating the North Valley on Etna in their vintage charts.
As happens so often with extraordinary terroirs, a place lays dormant and forgotten for a century before suddenly, unexpectedly and by chance wine visionaries in search of their chalice stumble upon a hidden treasure. This is the north side of Etna.
The terroir on the north side of Etna is unique. Vineyards are planted at an altitude between 600 and 1000 meters. North exposition this far south (we are practically on the same latitude as Tunis) avoids over-exposing vines to the sun’s rays. Vines have been grown here since time immemorial, but low conjuncture in Sicily during the last century has left old vines in abandon and makes for a virtual treasure trove for quality-motivated winemakers. Frank’s vines average 60 years but many vines continue to produce beyond the hundred years.
The volcanic soil has spared many sites from the phylloxera aphid which tends to stay away from sandy soil. Etna is active so from time to time she descends on some of Frank’s vines. He is willing to pay that price for prime land. The lavic soil composition is highly mineral and retains heat as well as humidity. Thousands of years after a lavic flow, the lava has disintegrated and turned into lavic sand, which is evidenced by the rich vegetation that grows around all volcanoes. This is proved on Etna not only by the most outstanding grapes on the island, but also by the world’s best pistachios as well as world-class almonds and hazelnuts, lest I forget the olives (Frank swears by the local San Benedetto olives).

Nerello Mascalese

Sicily is famous for its local red grape variety Nero d’Avola. This popular grape takes second place to Etna’s own local grape named Nerello Mascalese. Many winemakers speak of other complementary local varieties such as Nerello Capuccio, but there is widespread belief that this confusion is caused by many massal selections of Nerello Mascalese which had not been tampered with clonally until recently. There is however another distinctive variety on Etna which is called Uva Francisa (French Grape), which is likened to Petit Verdot in character and appearance. Vineyards were traditionally planted to different varieties and with the old plots it often becomes difficult to distinguish between them.
Nerello is the grape of the mountain and perhaps the greatest revelation on the island. When I was introduced to it what immediately sprung to mind was the likeness to mature Nebbiolo character. The color is light-hued with brick-red reflexes. Nerello is lots of tannins, but they are noble and Nerello creates a harmonious mouthfeel. This variety definitely carries in it a regal expression of subtle complexity and high drinkability.
Frank Cornelissen owns 8ha of vineyard and long-term leases another 5.5ha. The average age of the vines is difficult to specify, approximately 50 years. Plant density is approximately 8000 vines/ha which is the old albarello or gobelet free-standing bush vine tradition. Production is 16-22,000 bottles per year. Frank hopes to reach a production of 30,000 bottles once he can manage all the vineyard work well enough.
The names of the grand crus are Contrada Marchesa, Contrada Barbabecchi, Contrada Monte Colla, Contrada Porcaria, Contrada Pietramarina, Contrada Charanchello, Contrada Guardiola, Contrada Tartaraci, Contrada Santo Spirito, Contrada Calderara. Contrada loosely translates as a land district or locality.

When I asked Frank about the vineyard work that he does, his reply is, “lots and lots”. Frank is among the most extreme natural producers I know. The harvest period is between October and the middle of November.

 

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