December 19, 2012

Wine: These wines laugh at your opinions

By JOE APPEL

Wordsworth wrote that poetry is "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." Later, after you've experienced a poetic moment, you can bring your conscious mind to bear on it and figure out what just happened.

Next week, if tranquility has returned, I'll tell you some of what I know about the wines of Frank Cornelissen. For now, I'm in the full flush of a spontaneous overflow and I can only tell my brimming feelings.

It is extraordinarily significant for all of us in Maine who care about food and drink that the wines of Cornelissen are now available here. This is true regardless of whether you like them. The plain fact that wines like this exist signals a crucial development for the culture.

Cornelissen is a Belgian who moved to Sicily's active volcano, the 11,000-foot-high Mt. Etna, to make what he calls "pure wine." He is a pivotal, leading participant in a small, disparate group of vintners who aim to return wine to its original condition.

He grows local varietals such as Nerello Mascalese, Grecanico Dorato and Coda di Volpe on old, ungrafted vines. He prunes and selects the grapes, grown without any pesticides or herbicides or even the copper sulfate that is permitted under "organic" standards, so rigorously that an average of two vines are used to produce each bottle (even one vine per bottle is extreme and rare). Wines are fermented in amphorae (enormous clay vats dug into the ground), bottled without sulfur.

"I came to Etna," Cornelissen told me recently, "because I wanted to make the ultimate terroir wine. Liquid rock. I didn't have any fixed winery in mind or concept of wine making. I just wanted to get over the fruit and get to rock."

A common misconception about Cornelissen, promulgated by writers and wine people too lazy to venture out of ready-made media-story boxes, is that he's a wild, lone, hippie hermit. In fact, though, he is remarkably controlled, precise in speech as in practice, determined and industrious.

Cornelissen's extremism is rooted in pragmatism, drive, exactitude, honesty, will. At the core of his endeavors is bravery -- philosophical as well as material, given the unforgiving environment he has chosen to live and work in -- with a hard-edged indifference to convention.

In the past month, I've shared a meal with Cornelissen and followed up with a long, interesting phone conversation. We spent relatively little time discussing wine, but when we did turn to that subject, it was in the context of "profound wine."

Cornelissen attempted to explain what that is. But it wasn't complete. Drinking the Rosso del Contadino #8 is a better answer, because the wine is disruptive; it puts me out of my mind.

Profound wine expresses the unfamiliar, candidly and transparently. It cares little what we think of it while revealing flavor's essence. Cornelissen's wines taste like nature, like living things caught in the act.

Drink them. Revel in them. Don't tell them or anyone what you think. They're profound because our language is not necessary to them.

The paradox is that Cornelissen works hard (observing, cleaning, selecting, pruning, arranging) to attend to these wines that don't need to work or convince.

Next week I'll describe some of what that work looks like, and how Cornelissen's wines come out. The two reds distributed in Maine by Devenish are the Contadino ($26) and the Munjebel ($40).

Between the time you read this column and the time you read the next, I want you to spend $26 on a bottle of the Rosso del Contadino #8. Maybe that's more than you usually spend on a bottle of wine. It's roughly what you spend on a movie date plus snacks, or half a tank of gas, or an even smaller fraction of your cable TV subscription.

You and I will spend this week together, drinking Cornelissen Contadino. It will be an animated, controversial colloquium, because the matter at hand is important. 

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at soulofwine.appel@gmail.com.

 

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