Frank Cornelissen’s wines are about health. Health of planet, earth, vineyard, vine and grape as well as health of humanity, bodies, minds and spirits.
I’ve tried drinking enough of the Contadino, listed at 15 percent alcohol, to get hungover, but each morning I wake up instead sensing the hum of the cosmos in my bones.
I’ve tried holding negative thoughts while drinking the Munjebel, but no go. There’s too much raw, clear, exuberant vitality.
This is where I’ve come to, after a few weeks of drinking Cornelissen.
Appropriately, Cornelissen has studied and practiced macrobiotics, which views food as an energetic balance of yin and yang, emphasizing minimal processing, whole foods, and diet in service of overall (macroscopic) health.
Cornelissen’s view of macrobiotics informs his view of wine, and of the particular winemaking subcategories that his approach gets associated with (natural, biodynamic, minimalist) because he’s careful not to get caught up in rules.
“People just focus on the small things,” Cornelissen told me. “I make ‘natural’ wine, ‘biodynamic’ wine, and so on. But it’s more the whole picture. It’s a more intimate, personal, even philosophical issue. It’s a whole approach to life, where the natural-ness is the road, not its end.”
Cornelissen does practice “natural” winemaking, in extremis — no spraying of his ungrafted vines, micromanaged pruning and vineyard care, vinification in amphorae without fining, filtering or sulfur, and much more. (To make primal wine you must be modern. Such lightly processed wines as these can only be good, and remain good over time, if a winemaker maintains a pristinely clean, efficient production line.)
“People come here and ask all these details,” he said, “They want the recipe. And I’m like, ‘If you try this you’re going to (mess) it up. They’ve learned the trees, but they’ve forgotten the forest. They’ve forgotten the poetry. It takes a sensitivity to where you live, how you work. No one can copy what I do because of where we live and who I am.”
Now 51, the Belgian native and his Japanese-born wife (a teacher of macrobiotic and vegetarian cuisine) are raising their 1-year-old and 3-year-old in their adopted home — an active volcano on Sicily’s Mount Etna. Although he grew up with access to fine classic wines, and has sold wine professionally, Cornelissen credits his passion for mountaineering and the outdoors as a primary motivation for his current efforts.
“I got the health part from my father. I came to this from alpine climbing. I love the outdoors, freezing your ass off, possibly dying on a north face. I like the adventurous part of what I’m doing, and the need to be precise, to plan.”
Cornelissen’s appreciation of the wild and risky is coupled with high mental focus. “I honestly don’t think I’m a very intelligent person,” he told me. “What I’m doing intuitively is, I like to strip everything down to essentials. I have my car that way, my computer. And the little brain I have, I make it function to its maximum. I like other people, but I have my own character and I don’t care what other people say.”
How could such robust beliefs not translate to the wines themselves? The Contadino 9 ($26, Devenish), 80 percent Nerello Mascalese with 20 percent a field blend of various grapes including white-wine varietals, is the most welcoming introduction to what Cornelissen calls “high-precision wines.”
It combines the vitality of well-made Cru Beaujolais, the tannic length of Barbaresco, the sheer prettiness of Pinot Noir, the rusticity of Negroamaro. The flavors are so distinct, yet integrated into a larger whole. Most of all, the wine is about freshness and about being alive.
The Munjebel 8 ($40), from 100 percent Nerello Mascalese, is a deeper, more plunging wine, though it does not brood. Its precision, which Cornelissen calls “pin-point,” is jaw-dropping, and its length extreme. It seems to come from a place used to more blackness, more mystery than the Contadino, even as it retains a trademark buoyancy.
Incidentally, those prices are artificially low. Cornelissen’s top-tier wine, the Magma, runs above $200 a bottle, a price he set higher than that wine called for so he can sell the Contadino and Munjebel more accessibly. “I want my philosophy to be approachable,” he told me, “for people who are not wealthy on Mother Earth.”
Both wines speak a new language, at once old and young, a sort of universalizing Esperanto of wine. It has the capacity to unite, to erase boundaries falsely assumed resolute. And to return us to a state of health and wholeness we lost somewhere along the way.