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cornelissenIf you read many of my reviews you know I give points for character and originality. This wine surely qualifies.

First off, the grape variety Nerello Mascalese is one we see only occasionally in the U.S. Its home is Sicily especially in the foothills of Mt. Etna where it does well in the volcanic soil. Fruity and floral with a medium body but very strong tannins, they are rustic but  full of flavor. I’ve had only a few but I invariable enjoy them for their unusual structure.

But this is not a conventional wine. Frank Cornelissen is more or less the “godfather” of what has come to be known as “natural wins”. A Belgian by birth, he came to the Mt. Etna region in 2000  because he liked its potential and immediately began to break the rules of conventional winemaking.

No sprays, chemicals or treatments of any kind in the vineyard, no sulfites or other additives in the winery, native yeasts only, no oak aging. The refusal to use sulfites was revolutionary and risky. Sulfites protect the grapes from oxidation and bacteria growth, and in conventional winemaking it is applied to the grapes immediately after harvest with repeated doses. But most natural wines use minimal sulfites and some like the Munjebel use none at all (except for what occurs naturally in the vineyard).

Natural wines are controversial, in part because the word “natural” is subject to various interpretations and there are no standards for what belongs in this category. But they have been on the market for several years now and are attracting attention in part because customers like the ethos of low intervention winemaking but also because these wines can be interestingly different. They surely reflect the terroir of their region since little is being done to the wine to mask their natural expression. The problem is bottle variation. With nothing to protect the juice, variations in the handling of each bottle may cause it to evolve on its own trajectory meaning that each purchase is a bit of a gamble.

I’ve tasted many natural wines but I was looking forward to tasting this one because of its reputation as the quintessential expression.

The first whiff was pure nail polish remover—volatile acidity we call it—a serious flaw if it’s too prominent. Happily, a few minutes in the glass allowed the VA to dissipate sufficiently to reveal an interesting but “funky” wine. Black cherry supplemented with crushed rock aromas are pleasant as are the herbal and black olive notes that give it complexity. They are highlighted against a muted “sweaty”  background that develops into smoked meat aromas with more time in the glass. The mouth feel is buoyant and vivacious with a medium body and high acidity, but the tannins enter the picture early giving the wine an expansive quality with plenty of grit on the very long flavorful finish.

I tasted this wine over the course of two hours with plenty of time in the glass; it evolved and improved significantly with aeration.

If you’re adventurous I highly recommend this wine. It is an original although the cherry fruit and high acidity identify it as Italian—like a fresh Sangiovese but with more complexity and tougher tannins.

Score: 91

Price: $45

Alc: 14%

We need freaky folk music for this wine, Timber Timbre, Too Old to Die Young

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