"I can feel no sense of measure, no illusion as we take refuge in young man's pleasure…"

by Katie Pizzuto on December 11, 2009

in Natural Wines

There is plenty of chest pounding in the wine industry from winemakers that boast about their determination to maintain their individuality and uniqueness, their insistence that human intervention be minimal, and their willingness to stand apart from the “crowd”. They claim, in essence, to be iconoclasts when in fact they look and sound a lot like every other talking head in the business. Those who have to tell you they are renegades most assuredly never are. Singular expression is rare in this world and even more so in wine. Mavericks that are truly (and I do mean truly) willing to let a work of nature speak for itself and make their role in winemaking one of servitude, are the most extreme of terroirists—those that know exactly where the edge is because they’ve already gone over it.

Those of us that romanticize wine…that anthropomorphize wine…treat it as a living, breathing being. Even as it rests in a bottle it changes from day to day, altering our perceptions of it depending on which day we crack it open. It matures, reaches an apex, and then begins its demise. Thus is the organic nature of change. But not all wines are birthed equally. That is to say, some are more alive than others because others have been restrained, refined, polished and finessed. Some would say they have been shackled from true expression. Frank Cornelissen’s winemaking philosophy eschews those shackles. His is a philosophy that embraces the flux, the whims and the inherent chaos of nature, and lets it create whatever the hell it wants to. His wines are not at all for those who want the safety net of consistency in their wine drinking—they are for those who embrace that very chaos as a welcome opportunity to surrender their senses. His wines, simply stated, are not for everyone.

Cornelissen’s vines sit on the side of volcanic Mt. Etna, in Sicily. They are original, pre-phyloxera vines that haven’t been grafted or genetically engineered. The grapes grown there are fermented and aged in terracotta amphorae that are buried up to the neck in volcanic rock. These allow the wine to breathe a little, but don’t give the tannins that oak does or change the wine’s color—adding nothing to what the vine has produced. Masceration periods are extraordinarily long (until after the malolactic fermentation) and undisturbed, so that the grape/wine mass remains unseparated in order to extract all possible aromas of the soil and area. These wines become more an expression of the soil than of the fruit. And in a complete act of subservience to nature, no treatments or chemicals are added…not in the vineyard, not during winemaking, nor in bottling—including sulfur dioxide, which is probably why they aren’t a US import since they need to be kept in perfect temperature conditions at all times.

This particular bottling, his Contadino 5, is the wine that made Cornelissen an icon in natural winemaking. Drinking it is an act of complete submission to something you aren’t altogether sure is wine. It’s slightly frizzante when opened (remember, no stabilizers, no enzymes, no yeasts, no sulfur) and changes magically over the course of 30 minutes. Wafts of warm citrus rind, spices, earth and minerality sweep up out of the glass, and its cloudy nature completely freaks you out. By the time you collect your senses and come up for a breath of air you find yourself completely without a reference point—utterly unchartered territory. This is what wine is at its most primal form. You will either become transfixed by it or you will run for the kitchen sink, unable to dump it down the drain fast enough. You will either fall in love with a wine that lives in a world without structure or you will stare at it with contempt. But either way, it will change you and leave you (for better or worse) a more educated wine drinker.

Some say this type of winemaking is self-indulgent and divorced from reality. They poo-poo the eccentricity and mock the minimalist for being Quixotic, while they sing the praises of the next bland, generic “green” winery that longs to woo you with its planet-saving practices. The wine world desperately needs people like Frank Cornelissen to push the boundaries of what is possible and what is honest. Without them we are less educated, less experienced and less exposed. Without them we are merely less.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Vinod V. December 11, 2009

Great choice Katie! Don’t know why Italy is chock-full of these extremists, but I’m not complaining. Assuming you liked the wine, you might have enjoyed the lineup I went through last weekend (the link) – several of the madmakers were involved. There was a very peculiar blind done, and Cornelissen was the unfortunate (but maybe telling) guess.

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2 castello December 12, 2009

That sounds like some wild juice. Quixotic. Erotic?

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3 Randall Grahm December 12, 2009

I am a great admirer of the work that Cornelissen does and agree that our world is much richer for it. Katie has really hit the nail on the head with this post. She is completely correct to insist on the dynamic, living, breathing nature of wine, especially those wines that are produced in a more natural fashion, imbued with life-force; they are the most dynamic, sensitive wines of all. I would go further to say that “objectivist” view of wine – the notion that the essence of a wine can be captured in something like a point score, a static snapshot of the wine at a particular instant – is utterly bankrupt. The experience of a wine is ultimately the experience of ourselves, and if we are willing to let go a bit of our own need to drive the experience, we can potentially learn quite a bit. Not just about the flavors/aromas that we like and dislike, but about the essentially roller-coaster, recombinative nature of life itself. It is my belief that natural, unmanipulated wines are potentially more interesting occasions to commune with nature’s primal forces, but as Katie points out, we have to let go of a lot of our ideas about what is “correct” in wine.

I have myself come up squarely against this problem in a wine that I recently tasted, the ’04 Bea Sagrantino di Montefalco. I’ve had it on two occasions and in both instances was greatly disappointed. I’m not remembering the “problem” of the first bottle, but the second bottle had a level of volatile acidity that was clearly far above what we generally think of as acceptable in “proper” wine. (Though I am told that Guigal’s La Mouline pushes the limit in some vintages.) What I have loved so much about Bea’s wines from previous vintages – their dynamic quality, their ability to change and evolve from the time they are opened, their soulfulness, depth and resonant “natural” quality, had somehow taken a wrong turn and had broached the limit of propriety. (Maybe this is a little bit like hearing an unacceptable, offensive remark from someone whom one generally really esteems.) I found myself becoming angry at someone allowing this wine to enter the arteries of commerce without proper warning of its presumed variability.

Here is what I think is the issue: There is something like an implicit social contract between winemaker/wine merchant and wine consumer that we generally give little thought to, but is always there. You give someone some money with the expectation that your experience of the goods that you receive in exchange will conform to a certain expectation of experience. You expect your bottles to not be “corked”, leaky, sun or heat-damaged, etc. and if they present that way, it is reasonable to expect your money back. If you are buying a wine that is made in a more “natural” fashion – with lower levels of SO2 or no SO2 at all, you are beginning to move into an area where the social contract is becoming perhaps as cloudy as the wine itself. (When I bought my first bottle of Cornelissen, I was told to expect a 1/2 inch or more of sediment in the bottle, and this was fair warning.) The Bea wines that I had experienced from previous vintages all presented within the range of the normative wine aesthetic, and this new vintage seems to be somewhat of an outlier. Maybe if the merchant had something like, “Y’know, Bea is now experimenting with using no SO2 at all in his winemaking and you can really expect a lot more bottle to bottle variation,” I would have been able to have made the psychological accommodation to have gone with the higher level of V.A. and have been essentially fine with it. But no one warned me, and I was thinking fast ball and I got a curve. The Bea wine was certainly a dramatic (at least for me) case of what happens when expectations are grossly mismatched with experience, but I’m certain that something like this happens all the time in the wine business when a winemaker is in transition, if you will, between one style and another. What are his/her obligations to manage the expectations of his/her consumer? It’s tricky; not all winemakers are particularly revelatory on the subject of what they do, and what their customers might expect. But they would do well to meditate on this implicit social contract.

I think that what Cornelissen is doing is absolutely brilliant. At the same time, there is absolutely a special obligation of the people who are represent his wines to give their customers the appropriate set of caveats and fair warnings as to what to expect. In this way, the social contract can be maintained and open minds (and palates) can be opened further.

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4 Anthony Wilson December 12, 2009

Wonderful post Katie, and wonderful response Randall.

I just returned from Europe, where I have been performing concerts since mid-September. On that lengthy trip, I had my own parallel tour going on: one in which I was taking a “crash course” in the world of European wines that are made “naturally” and the people who sell and serve them. With the help of cavistes/restaurant owners, merchants, and importers, I was guided through the fascinating, delicious, and sometimes (but really not that often) challenging world– one might say, even, subculture– and drank, lustily, at least 100 of these wines from France, Italy, Germany, even some extremely exciting ones from Spain (many of whose vignerons have abandoned authenticity for point-score chasing). The wines of Cornellisen always stood out from the crowd, and that’s saying something. I had several different Contadino and Munjebel (never did spring for the Magma), and was never anything less than enthralled. On each occasion my senses were awakened. The experience of drinking the wines was both visceral, intellectual, and full of pleasure, and –as Randall suggests is quite important–made all the more exciting because I had been told of the kind of visionary that Cornellisen is, informed about the specifics of his farming and vinification, and prepared for the kinds of quirks, individualities, even so-called “flaws” that his wines could contain. These (and wines by other very bold vignerons working in the “natural” mileu) are important wines, and I am so happy to see people such as Katie, Alice Feiring, Matt Kramer, Eric Asimov and others reaching out to them, and reaching out to the public with news, education, and genuine excitement about them.

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5 Clark Smith December 13, 2009

There is much to admire in this discussion. I particularly liked Randall’s point about the social contract.

However, it is essential in a profitable discussion that the writer holds to a higher standard than the shrill papparazzi who normally haunt the discussion of natural wine. In distinguishing what is meant by this slippery concept, one should be accurate about what it is not. For example, there is absolutely no issue in “normal” wine concerning genetically engineered grapevines, despite the implication. Extolling Cornelissen’s vines as not genetically engineered is just as reprehensible as labelling organic honey “fat-free.”

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6 Katie Pizzuto December 13, 2009

@Randall…couldn’t agree more on the idea of a “social contract”. I know his wines do have a sort of disclaimer about proper storage, it’s natural state and lack of SO2, storage temp requirements, etc. Given that his wines aren’t even available on US shelves, I think right now it’s simply a matter of his reputation preceding him where wine drinkers are concerned, but I do understand your point.

@Clark…I don’t think I implied that genetically engineered vines were lesser in any way or vice versa that his, because they are pre-phyloxera are better or to be lauded in any way. I was merely stating facts…they are, in fact, ungrafted. That fact sat alongside how the wines are fermented and aged…I didn’t laude those processes either, just described them. My purpose here is not to say that his natural winemaking methods are somehow superior to others. My purpose was to let my readers know that wines like these exist and that they serve a very important purpose in the wine world, for they expand our point of reference, broaden our experience as wine lovers, and remind us that not all wines are created equally. Bukowski and Ginsberg exist alongside poets like Whitman and Frost and I’m eternally thankful for such different voices…if our only experiences lay in where we have been rooted and we never manage to take wing, we are lesser for that.

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7 The Wine Commonsewer December 14, 2009

Those who have to tell you they are renegades most assuredly never are.

That is true across the board in every walk of life. From lovers to strangers, those who talk about it the most, do it the least, and are damn bad at it.

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8 Coupe 60 December 14, 2009

in the future, some of your slower readers might appreciate it if you put definitions next to big words like “anthropomorphize” (to attribute human form or personality to things not human)…

I mean its fine for me you know, but others might not catch your drift… 🙂

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9 Katie Pizzuto December 15, 2009

LMAO, Coupe…I like to force my readers to pick up a dictionary once in a while (oh, who am I kidding, I mean “Google” terms once in a while)…gives them something to do other than pick their nose 🙂

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10 Riesling for Leif December 15, 2009

Great post Katie, and wonderfully contoured by Randall’s commentary. I especially want to applaud you for imbuing your post with adoration for this wine’s place in the world without using it as a catapult for self-aggrandizement in the circle of natural wine lovers. While I have no problem with this “circle”, and would proudly include myself in some form, it seems that this category of wine has been accumulating such attention lately that it’s in danger of becoming ‘trendy’. The wines of this category are often talked about as a personal discovery among enthusiasts or the rigid must-be of the wine world going forward. However, it seems clear to me that amongst most ‘natural’ wine producers the fashions and trend-ism are exactly what the tenets of these such approaches are distinctly attempting render unnecessary.
Your unbiased post does better justice to these such wines (and wines in general) than would a glorified appraisal for its exception to the rule.

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11 Anthony December 15, 2009

That was to funny Coupe. Katie hit the nail on the head once more, DICTIONARY. Im new to this discussion but enjoyed the posts

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12 Katie Pizzuto December 15, 2009

Thanks for the comments, Leif…I couldn’t agree more, on all points. In no way to I think “natural wines” to be superior, but I do find their existence crucial, and I do think any serious wine drinker should, at some point, open themselves up to experiencing a few. That being said, I really did enjoy this wine, and only wish I was able to fork out the bones for a bottle of his Magma! I also agree that these wines are in danger of becoming somewhat trendy, and I echo your fear that most of these producers want to be anything but trendy.

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13 Wine Making December 15, 2009

Excellent information here on wine, all aspects off. well written. I extremely enjoyed reading this, many thanks for sharing

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14 Jim December 15, 2009

This is what I love about beer. There’s a rich history, well established styles, but experimentation is encouraged. The best breweries are always pushing the envelope and exploring what beer can be. I think some wine purists might be freaked out by such behavior, but it’s encouraged in the beer world.

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15 Katie Pizzuto December 16, 2009

There’s definitely a lot more freedom and experimentation encouraged in the beer industry, Jim, and I’m not quite sure why because I know that brewers and enthusiasts both hold craft brews to be as sacred and refined as winemakers do their wine. What’s interesting to note, not only in wine and beer, but in spirits also, is that a lot of the “experimentation” and exploration is not really with new methodology, but with the old. They’re reverting back to older practices, looking for the roots of the craft. I see it not only with these natural wines, but with things like Lambics and bourbons. I guess everything is cyclical!

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16 Linsey December 16, 2009

I dont know if Katie will post again in the next couple weeks – so I am just ‘hi-jacking- this thread to wish everyone a Happy Christmas and a good new year!

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17 Ned December 18, 2009

Actually I’m pretty sure that only a small percentage of the vines are ungrafted. Most of the vines in the vineyard that produces the “Magma ” wine are, some are just old but grafted. All the rest of the estate is grafted, surprising as that may seem.

Quality firsthand reports from visitors are here:

http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=112969329976
http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/41298

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18 Katie Pizzuto December 18, 2009

Thanks for the info, Ned. It had said right on his website that “The new vineyard (2003-4) was planted without grafts, using the cuttings of our existing pre-phylloxera vines” but my mistake for not noting that apparently they don’t mention specifics about the original vines (not the new ones). Thanks so much for the updated info!

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19 Savio December 18, 2009

It is happening very fast, all of a sudden Natural Wines are here to drink, to blog, to discuss, to threat, to attack, to defend, to live. Finally something to shake up the past three decades of drinking aristocratic labels with high points.
Andrea (Ondrej) Calek from Prague is making some great wines in the Ardeche, showing much individuality/personality. His Blanc Blond Pet Nat is made from Chardonnay and Viognier (methode ancestrale) zero SO2 added, no filtration/finning. It is cloudy, brown/orange color and as we get to the end of the bottle, very muddy and ugly, but full of aromas and very lively in the palate that sometimes it is hard to tell if the fermentation is over. One of a kind. Delicious and intense.
Axel Prufer. from the old DDR, is another ex-pat who moved to Languedoc from the outskirts of Dresden. He found some great old vines near Bedarieux planted 400/500 meters of altitude from which he is making making table wines with lots of individuality, better yet, with each new vintage he keeps getting better. His Grenache/Carignan/Cinsault blend was thought to be a cru bojo or loire red when blind tasted by many somms in NY.
Additionally, Claude Courtois, Julien Courtois, Reynald Heaule, Mouressipe (Alain Allier) are just a few daring winemakers each with their on experiences and styles, in the forefront of non-intervention, AOCless Natural Wines.
Thanks to postings like these and to a growing number of sommeliers and a new generation of wine professionals in retail stores, these wines are being recommended to curious and savvy consumers.

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20 Felix May 30, 2010

“[…]willing to let a work of nature speak for itself and make their role in winemaking one of servitude, are the most extreme of terroirists[…]”

“[…]in a complete act of subservience to nature, no treatments or chemicals are added[…]”

I wouldn’t call this “subservience” or “servitude”. At a deeper level, as a specie we DO have to reinvent the way we are living on this planet. The idea of having to dominate, use, and shape nature at our will is a medieval one, and will lead us over a cliff.

What upset me more is the growing trend for “green washing” wineries who use the current eco-bandwagon to boost sales.

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21 Felix May 30, 2010

Oh by the way, dont get me wrong i loved the article and the ensuing discussion!

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22 Katie Pizzuto June 1, 2010

I couldn’t agree more with the “green washing” you mentioned, which is basically what I was attacking in both the beginning and end of this piece. Though I’m not sure how it’s NOT a matter of being subservient: Subordinate in capacity or function; Useful as a means or an instrument; serving to promote an end. Though certainly not all natural winemakers take their role to that extreme, Frank certainly does. His lack of interference with the fermentation process, in my opinion, is indicative of subordination. Thanks for the comments, Felix!

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