Food & Drink Italy Wine

The Winemaker and the Volcano

By Finlay Renwick

Jul 14, 2023

The Winemaker and the Volcano

Frank Cornelissen arrived on Mount Etna with a bicycle and the beginning of an idea. It was 2000, and he’d been drawn to the volcano after seeing a photo of it in winter: ancient, imposing and blanketed in snow. “Call it love at first sight,” he says. “I thought… ‘this is it.’”

We’re stood on the slope of Cornelissen’s favourite vineyard, the wind shaking the leaves of the vines as storm clouds gather above us in sombre shades of grey. “The weather is meant to be bad tomorrow, so we’re lucky,” he says matter-of-factly, well used to the caprices of daily life on the plateau of an active volcano (it will erupt a few days after our visit.) We look out across the deep green valley pockmarked with yellow wildflowers, the echo of a church bell carried by the wind. 

“For the first two years, when I moved here, I didn’t have any technology. No car, no equipment, just a hand pump, and a bicycle. You could say I was a ‘white sheet.’ I wanted to make wine, so I did it.” 

For a certain kind of wine drinker, Frank Cornelissen is a legend. A producer whose distinctive, low intervention vintages — a simple bottle with an elegant brush of Etna on the label, using regional grapes like Nerello Mascalese, Malvasia and Moscadella—are savoured in bars with nice lighting and restaurants that champion seasonality. He’s revived a historic terroir and become the face of a movement that respects time and the environment. Slow and steady. He’s also making wine on an active volcano.

“What could be more romantic – some might say heroic – than farming grapes to make your dream wines somewhere where rivers of molten lava threaten to wipe your life’s work at any moment?” says Dan Keeling, the restaurateur and editor behind Noble Rot, an early supporter of Cornelissen’s work. “I loved Frank’s mission statement of making ‘liquid rock’ from the first moment I heard it.”

“What I remember most is being struck initially by the colour,” says Noah May, the head of wine and spirits at Christie’s, who was introduced to Cornelissen’s wine in New York by an importer friend. “It looked improbably light, almost pink. Tasting the wine, slightly chilled, was a revelation. It was ‘wild’ tasting, herbal and hard to characterise, but with a counterintuitive sense of purity. I found it fascinating.”

With cropped silver hair and a strong face deeply tanned by the sun, Cornelissen, who is Belgian, looks the part of winemaker and outdoorsman. He’s an avid ice climber and skier and, when the opportunity arises, likes to drive fast in a menacing-looking Alpine super car in a radioactive colour of green. “It’s really nice,” says Frank. It is. He and his wife are in the process of building a new house, a beautiful, modernist concrete block cut into the volcano. Frank’s young son does loops around the driveway on his bike as we’re given the tour. 

“Compared to, let’s say, some areas of France, we’re not a big production,” he says, “but for Etna we’re top 10.” Starting out two decades ago, Frank was shipping 1,000 bottles a year, which has risen to 150,000 today, exporting to 35 countries, along with a growing olive oil business. “Now it’s not just your wife, two kids, three cats and a dog… it’s 30 people! You have to take care of them. I think about that responsibility a lot.

“I’m lucky, though,” he adds, “the raw material is very good here. It’s a rural and rustic area, a bit ancient and old-fashioned, but the people are very friendly and open, and the quality of the land is incredible. If you take wine from a point of view of beauty and aesthetics, then you can live with nature. It’s simple, trust me. I work with limited people and I work with nature. Viniculture is like having kids. They grow, they nourish, and hopefully they don’t die.”

At the moment Cornelissen can’t make enough wine to satisfy demand. “I guess it’s a good problem to have,” he says drily.

Behind the wheel of his orange Isuzu pick-up truck, Frank makes a call. We cruise down windy mountain roads, occasionally stopping for a ‘Ciao!’ and a catch-up with an employee or local. His best friend owns a restaurant at the bottom of the valley. He’s brought a bottle of Magma, his Grand Cru red wine, and another of Munjebel Bianco.

We sit around a large table as family’s and tourists extend lunch long into the afternoon. Anyone who has tried Frank’s wines can attest to there being something special about them – especially when you’re sat in a restaurant at the foot of the volcano where the grapes are grown and harvested. The storm has held off for now, giving way to a gentle afternoon bathed in early summer sun. 

Frank takes a sip of Magma and looks pleased. “It’s a wine that has volume structure, finesse, everything!” he says enthusiastically, eyeing the deep red liquid in his glass with some pride. "When I started, I just wanted to make some wine.”

“So you could say it was a hobby that got out of hand.”

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