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swirl and savor

An Afternoon with Frank Cornelissen, The "Madman" of Munjebel!

Beth Ribblett

After our lovely breakfast at the Scilio Agriturismo, we packed ourselves into our vehicles and headed off to our much anticipated visit with controversial producer Frank Cornelissen. Of Belgian descent, Frank is a newcomer to the Etna which presents both advantages and disadvantages for the passionate winemaker who arrived on the volcano in 2001. Having no roots or ties to the age old regional traditions in winemaking, Frank feels free to do things his own way. Blending white and red grapes for his Contadino, skin fermenting his white wines, using clay amphora for aging; these are just a few of the unconventional methods he uses that helped him earn the title the "Madman of Etna".

When I asked what drew him to the Etna, he said it was precisely the Etna that called him to Sicily. The unique climate, soil and the history that the volcano presents are unlike anywhere in the world and give him an exciting venue for his minimalistic approach to winemaking. Frank takes the term non-intervention to the extreme. He feels that anytime you add something to the process, be it herbicides, oak, sulfites, you take something away from the wine. Which is why Frank avoids all possible interventions including any treatments, whether chemical, organic, or biodynamic, to keep the process in tune with nature as it was done thousands of years ago.

So what does all this mean in terms of Frank's viticultural and vinification practices? Frank has 12 hectares of land that he uses for grapes, fruit and olive trees. Out of those 12 hectares, 9.5 are classic free standing bush vines with some from cuttings of prephylloxera vines. He cultivates other plants and species in between the vines, such as buckwheat, fruit trees and even beehives to help maintain a balanced ecosystem. He keeps his yields low, 300g per plant and harvests totally by hand, usually in late October into early November.

Once the grapes reach the "catina", Frank again takes a minimalist approach. After crushing, the must is then placed into big plastic drums in his backyard (no temperature control here) which are then covered with a tent-like plastic material to keep the rain out. The wine is left to spontaneously ferment and macerate with the skins for a long time not to disturb the complex natural processes of fermentation. The skins, seeds and wine remain unseparated during the entire process in order to extract all possible aromas of soil and territory. Pressed with a wooden basket press the wine is then put into the clay amphorae with the help of gravity and later bottled unfiltered. Absolutely nothing else is added to this wine. Nothing. Not even SO2 (Sulfur Dioxide).

The "cellar" is currently a small room adjacent to the oudoor "catina", although Frank was in the process of moving to a larger facility while we were there. The 400 liter amphorae are buried to the neck in ground volcanic rock keeping in tune with the ancient traditions of aging. Again he is looking for the most pure expression of the territory and feels that oak of any kind will take something away from wine.

Frank currently produces 5 wines, Munjebel Bianco, Munjebel Rosso, Contadino, Magma and Susucaru all of which we tasted with Frank (except for the Susucaru, his rose, which we had with dinner the next evening, but we'll leave that for another post....)on this lovely fall day outside on his black lava rock courtyard. The wines are like nothing you've ever tasted before! I once heard someone describe them as "energetic" which I think is a great term as there is a natural vibrancy and living energy that is present in every one of Frank's wines.

We started with the Munejebel Bianco a blend of Carricante, Grecanico Dorato and Coda di Volpe which is vinified like like a red wine, in full and long skin-contact because as Frank says "the flavors of the grape are on the skin". A beautiful orangish gold color, cloudy (no fining or filtering here), intense minerality, an earthy/ashy/smoky quality with apricots and herbs. Light tannins and firm acidity, but not overdone.

Next up was the Contadino that started as house wine for the workers where he combines Nerello Mascalese (70%) and an assortment of his white grapes. It is a light, fresh style wine with red berries and currants, that unmistakable earthy/ashy quality, little tannin but nice acidity. Young and fruity and a joy to drink.

We then moved to the Munjebel Rosso which combines various vineyards and vintages of his best Nerello Mascalese grapes. Beautiful, sweet earthy red fruits with a little black tea and spice. Again a smoky minerality comes through on the palate; bold but with a fresh elegance as well. My favorite of the reds for its approachability, complexity and price.

The finale is the Magma, made from ungrafted pre-phylloxera, single vineyard Nerello Mascalese that is only bottled from vineyards and vintages that provide the perfect quality. This is Frank's top wine and it exhibits a complex nose of cherries, plums, earth, smoke and a little tar. Sort of nebbiolo like with a nice density on the palate. Full, a little tannic and tight; needs time but you can already taste the amazing quality and potential of this wine.

Through his practice of non-intervention Frank allows the wines to take a natural course and through taking that course a very distinct quality comes through each and every wine. I can only describe it as an essence of purity and an expression of the grape from a very particular time and place that you taste in every sip and each one of his creations. That particular place is the Etna and is like no other on earth. And Frank's wines are alive with the spirit of this amazing place.

Thank you Frank, it was an honor to meet you and spend such a wonderful afternoon with you and your wines! I can't wait till our next visit! To view the full slide show from our visit, click here: Munjebel, Frank Cornelissen