An interesting questionaire from Winart magazine in Japan


Last year, the magazine for fine wine in Japan, Winart, has asked me to reply to a questionnaire regarding natural wine and my views to this topic. I am very grateful to Winart for this questionnaire as it shows clearly my views, motives and philosophy on producing wine.

FRANK CORNELISSEN (artisan winery on Etna)

  • Total vineyard surface: 16 ha.
  • Total olive growth surface: 2 ha.
  • Total annual production: 35.000-45.000 bt.

1) We heard there is a movement of “Natural Wine” in France. In this context, what is the definition of Natural wine?
There is no definition today of what is a “natural wine”, which is a big problem, both filosophically as well as legally. Anybody can claim he or she produces natural wines.

My personal definition of a so called “natural wine” is a wine where nothing is added or altered, chemically or mechanically, from the grapes until the final bottled wine.

2) What are the key factors which determine whether or not a wine is natural wine?
There are a few common factors to determin wether a wine is produced in a natural way:

-grapes should be cultivated without the use of systemic treatments, without pesticides and without weed killers;
-no added culture yeast;
-no acidity modifications;
-no mechanical alterations;

Problematic issues are the use of sulphur which is allowed up to a certain level but is up to today impossible to analyze wether the sulphur in the wine is the natural quantity produced through fermentation or wether the sulphur level contains added sulphur. More and more wineries claim to not use sulphur but often the quantity measured is high (over 30mg./l.) which brings questions to integrity.

3) Do you differentiate “Natural Wine” from “organic wine” or other types of minimally manipulated wine? If so, what is the difference?
As natural wine is not defined, there cannot be made any difference today between the above mentioned categories. Organic wine is a very recent legal category which did not exist in Europe until 2012 as the BIO/organic certification stopped at the grapes and did not include the wine. As of 2013 there is a certification level for BIO/organic wine.

3) Is your goal to make natural wine or organic wine from organic grapes?
My goal is to produce profound territorial wines, without anything added. The natural approach in my winemaking is a technique to search and hopefully reach perfection in expressing terroir, the heritage of the grapes and place we cultivate. Naturalness is the road, not it’s end.

4) Have you got any certifications such as “Certified Organic” or “Biodynamic”?
We are certified organic as a farm and will also be certified organic for our wines and olive oils we produce. (BIO #: ASS32282CT6878 and USDA organic #: ITASS US932)

I do not agree with being and staying outside of legality. There are rules and regulations and as I produce a food product, I take my profession seriously and strive for maximum transparency.
We therefor have also started with ISO 9001 and ISO 22000 certification which is in process.

Regarding Biodynamic certification, although I feel very closely related to the antroposophic filosophy of Steiner, I disagree when it comes to wine as well as the biodynamic approach in agricultural treatments. I feel Biodynamics is much more a cure, and to my opinion one of the most sensitive and effective, but not an agricultural method to follow. A personal issue.

5) Please explain why you have or have not achieved certification.
I do not agree with being and staying outside of legality. There are rules and regulations and as I produce a food product, I take my profession seriously and strive for maximum transparency.

We therefor have also started with ISO 9001 and ISO 22000 certification which is in process.

6) Have you joined any associations of wine growers of natural wine?
Yes I am a member of following groups:

-AVN in France
-Vins S.A.I.N.S. in France
-VINNATUR in Italy

7) Why did you originally decide to make natural wines?
My starting point in wine is very classical as I was educated in my family with classic gastronomy and the famous French wines of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Rhone.

I started producing wines in 2001 with the idea of producing the ultimate terroir wine, without using anything else but grapes. The reason for this approach is that wines without corrections are more honest and precise in expressing vintage and vineyard. And second these wines are evidently more digestable and more healthy. Again, the naturalness to me is the road, not it’s end. But there is lots to learn to achieve great wine without the use of chemistry added.

8) From whom or where did you learn the method of making natural wines
In many ways I am self trained because I am born a curious person. When I have something in my mind I want to go straight to this goal. And so I started, using elimination as a mental process, making errors and correcting to produce always better wines.

9) Do you use semi-carbonic maceration when you make red wines?
I do not use CO2 added during fermentation. I use CO2 in the end phase of the wine when the fermentation is slowing down in order not to oxidize the cap and avoid bacterial infection.

10) Whether you responded “yes” or “no” to the previous question, please explain the reasoning behind your decision.
The reason why I do not use carbonic or semi-carbonic fermentation, or whole cluster fermentation is based on my idea and vision of what wine is: I search for territorial, terroir wines and so I need oxygen to get to the tertiary aromas of my wine. If I focus on fruit-driven, primary flavour wines, I would avoid the oxygen and go carbonic.

My technical difficulty is searching the right amount of oxygen in order to reach the territorial expression of wine without oxidizing it.

11) Why do so many winegrowers of “natural wines” use semi- carbonic maceration?
I believe it is a good way of protecting from bacterial infections and keeping the wines fruity and easy to drink.

In my case of playing more with oxygen, I need a spotlessly clean cellar, work clinically clean and need highly concentrated grapes (low yields). Otherwise my wines would die rapidely.

12) There are some who opine that red wines made using semi-carbonic maceration can share a similar aromatic or flavor profile. What do you think of this opinion?
I agree. This does not mean that these wines are not nice, but they tend to become boring as they reach a uniformness and miss territorialness and personality.

13) In general, what is your policy with regard to the use of sulfur dioxide in your winemaking?
I have set myself a goal to produce without any products added. This means no acid corrections, no sugar added and no sulphur added. Zero.

The reason for this choice is dual: The first reason is that when you add sulphur to a wine, you limit the aromatics of a wine and so for me, searching the full expression of terroir, it is counter productive adding SO2. The second reason is filosophical, where I prefer to produce an integral product without “doping” as it is also better for my client’s health.

14) What do you believe to be the negative effect of using too much sulfur dioxide in your winemaking?
My question to this question is: how much is too much? And this is why I prefer not getting into a technical discussion of just how many mg. are allowed to be good, bad, healthy or unhealthy. My point is that when you add SO2, even in small quantity (10mg/l), you will put your wine organoleptically in a prison. And healthwise, some people are alergic to added sulphur.

15) If you do not produce wines without added sulfur dioxide, what do you think are the consequences of sans souffre winemaking?
First of all we should make a difference between winemaking “sans souffre” which usually stops at bottling. 95% of the sans souffre winemaking has sulphur before bottling. I am talking about no sulphur at all.

One of the consequences is a very reduced potential in sales to start with. A lot of criticism is another.
The difficulties are a more interesting point as one is never 100% sure wether the wine will be perfect when you open a bottle as there will always be minor changes according to the moment of opening. And this means putting a lot of effort in communication.
Making great and profound wines without any SO2 added, including no SO2 at bottling, requires so much attention to detail and cleanliness which would make even the top Bordeaux estates look like boy-scouts. The reference for cleanliness is the milk industry.

16) If you use SO2, at what stage(s) of the winemaking process do you add it, and how much do you typically add?
I should not answer this question as I do not use it and I have no experience using it.

From a technical point of view there are so many reasons to use SO2. For example I would use it on grapes which are not perfect, in must which is high on volatile acidity, in pump-overs, and eventually before bottlingSˇ

17) Do you think natural wine with minimal sulfur dioxide additions can age well in bottle over several years?
I have tasted wines of more than 12 years old with zero sulphur added which were perfect and have tasted sulphur vinified wines which were not dead but completely oxidized after 6 years… It all depends on how concentrated the wine is to start with and at what oxidation level the wine was bottled.

I prefer wines without SO2 added for the maximum flavor and complexity issue explained previously, even if I will have to drink this wine 5 years earlier than a sulphured version of the same wine which will be less complex due to the adding of sulphur.

18) Do you think natural wines tend to contain more off-flavors compared to conventional wines?
Depends what you call an off flavour. But technically speaking, wines with no SO2 added will have great moments and will have moments where the wine is reductive and needs decanting, more than a sulphured wine. It is definitely more difficult to produce a consistently great wine without SO2 added. In my case, I feel that I am getting closer to understanding the full process to produce more stable wines now after 12 years. Although there will be always things to learn and improve!

19) Please discuss whether or not you find the following characters acceptable in your wine:
1)ethyl acetate

2)acetic acid
4) methionol mercaptan
5) mixture with ethyl-4-phenol (500 µg/L) + ethyl-4-guaiacol
Åismell caused by BrettanomycesÅj
6) ethyl-4-phenol
7) éthyl-4-gaiacol
A bit too technical for me, but concentrating on the big problems, bretanomyces is one which can be easily eliminated with a clean cellar and clean work (we use ozone, steam and clean during work, not after). Volatile acidity is another issue which is better to be avoided as it demonstrates the level of bacterial infection. Before bottling, I do not like my wines to be over 0,5 with 13% of alcohol up to to 0,7 with 15% or more alcohol for bacterial stability.

1) Do you think organic viticulture is essential for the production of natural wine?
Yes. Not only for “natural wine” but for any wine which has territory as it’s goal to express as grapes cultivated organically are of a higher quality standard, although I feel that the level of intensity of treatments in certified organic farming is still too high. But it is a good starting point.

2) Do you think natural wine can be made from purchased grapes?
Yes. Although it is very hard to produce great wine from purchased grapes as there is a relation between the winemaker and his grapes: picking time, picking in passages, choice of plot, choice of which grapes from which section of a vineyard, etc. And there is the problem of seriousness of the vendor when purchasing.

Bordeaux being one of the most sophisticated winemaking areas in the world is an interesting example: all top Chateaux cultivate their own grapes and have a “Chef de Culture”. The name of the game I feel is called seriousness and not naturalness.

3) Are there any technical winemaking methods which should not be used in the production of natural wine?
All mechanical interventions which alter the wine of that specific vintage or vineyard should be avoided, like for example reverse osmoses, alcohol extractions and all the techniques not known to me. These changes lead to lesser attention in the vineyards and corrections in the cellar which ends up in a form of standardization of the wines with less vintage and vineyard character.

4) Do you use any biodynamic methods such as applications of the preparations or timing vineyard work to the lunar calendar?
Yes I do. Most sensitive people understand the importance of the cycles in nature and the effect on the vine and result in the fruit eventually. I use the Maria Thun calendar for critical works, especially in the cellar, like bottling, racking, pressing. For the farming, especially in the green harvest we look at the vine reaction as the physical temperature is high and the reaction can be sometimes a shut-down of the vine if worked/treated too roughly. Most important in farming is to get all the work done in the right time in order to have the vines working at maximum fotosynthesis. But unfortunately this is not always possible due to weather conditions and accumulation of work.

1) Are your wines certified as AOC, or do you think it is not necessary to get AOC?
Untill harvest 2012 all my wines are table wines. As of 2014 all wines will become AOC.

The decision to choose “Vin de Table” when I started producing wines in 2001 was based on avoiding burocracy. Today we produce 45.000 bottles, work with 10 employees, cultivate over 16 ha of vines and 2 of olive trees, which implements administration to follow up. As of vintage 2013, all my wines will become AOC, either Etna or Sicilia where the vineyard is out of the bounderies of the Etna AOC or where my vinifying technique is not regarded as classic to the area like for my rosé. The extra administration will not change my today’s life so much as it would have in 2001 when I started.

This mental change has to do with my belief that there will be more fraud in the future with wine and other food products. I want to demonstrate my seriousness regarding traceability as we produce just like in Burgundy many different crus (5 in total) besides the classic estate wines and so who am I as a producer to claim my wine comes from this or another vineyard? Someone needs to control this.
Today on Etna, there are more producers working seriously and together we are trying to put Etna back on the world’s map of great and unique wines. Stepping into the AOC is for me a step towards seriousness as an estate and my return gift to the recognition of Etna which has given me a lot of satisfaction since the day I started here in 2001.

Thanks to Winart magazine:

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