"Every human body and every piece of land finds its own balance, and that’s why you should follow that land, not “farm” it, or “dictate” it."
is a winemaker whose bottles have been championed for two decades in the natural wine scene, but Frank’s quest isn't about making a certain style. His ultimate goal is to allow his vineyards to best express themselves in a bottle of wine, and over the years his personal winemaking path has meandered to bring him to where he is today, and it will continue to meander for the rest of his life. For him, making wine is an evolutionary experience.
He is not afraid to say what he thinks; he is always brutally honest; with others, too, but with none so much as with himself. This means that any winemaking philosophy he may have at a given moment in time will happily be shoved out of the window in the name of quality. He is a man on a one-way street to facilitate purity.
A Fateful Blind Tasting
It’s 1998. Frank sits in a Sicilian restaurant with his good friend Giusto Occhipinti, of Sicily’s renowned COS winery. Frank, living in Belgium, is the son of a wine merchant. He has grown up with bottles of fine wine, and began collecting bottles himself since the age of fifteen.
Giusto plonks a blind wine down on the table in a decanter. Frank tastes it, decides mentally that it’s a Piemonte wine, and thinks it’s one of the best wines he’s ever tasted.
He’s completely astonished when Giusto reveals it’s a wine made just a few kilometres up the road, right here on Mount Etna.
Fast forward 22 years, and Frank has been farming and making wine on Mount Etna for two decades. We ask him about that life changing moment; the one that would lead him to lay new roots on a volcano in the middle of an island. He says,
“I thought I was drinking Gattinara Nebbiolo - I love those wines. I never would have expected a wine from Etna to be of that kind of calibre. In those days, I was tasting so much wine, and that bottle - well it touched me. I didn’t expect that. There’s nothing more or less to it. It touched me, and that’s something rare. Not many wines can do that.”
Frank had decided at that moment that the terroirs of Mount Etna were capable of great things. So, he went in pursuit of a vineyard, and bought one: Contrada Barbabecchi. It is just 4000 square metres with old, own-rooted Nerello Mascalese vines, nestled high on the volcano. He named the wine produced from it MAGMA.
Soon after, he began to work with other vineyards, quickly discovering that Etna is capable of many different, nuanced expressions from vineyard to vineyard. Today, he works with 18 parcels of land across 24 hectares. He explains,
“We vinify every vineyard separately. I’ve done that since 2007, when I really noticed the differences. Then, I just continued to work in the same way, so that I could better understand the vineyards.”
Since he began working with individual fermentations, he has slowly and carefully been discovering the unique identity of each of his vineyards, unravelling what each terroir is capable of expressing. He says,
“Terroir is the identity of the vineyard and its grapes. It’s a combination of many elements: variety, geology and microclimate. Imagine if you plant eucalyptus around your vineyard: you’d have a different taste of wine. That means terroir can’t just be reduced to geology or to the environment or variety. It’s a combination of all those aspects. Some of the greatest terroirs and wines in the world always stand out, no matter if you vinify differently. That’s why there are great terroirs.”
13 hectares of his vineyards consist of very old vines planted to the indigenous Sicilian variety Nerello Mascalese; some are over 100 years old, and planted ungrafted; on their own roots. These are trained with the “alberello” system of growing vines on sticks (also known as bush vines or gobelet vines). Some years he feels the wines from these vineyards are complex and profound enough to be bottled as single vineyard cuvées. If not, they are blended into the Munjebel overall red blend (if pure Nerello Mascalese), or as part of the Susucaru red or rosé blend: his entry level cuvée, for which he always keeps the price affordable as he wants as many people to enjoy them as possible. The Susucaru reds also include the varieties Nerello Capuccio, Alicante Bouschet, Minella, and Uva Francesca. The Rosado, the rosé, is a blend of Nerello Mascalese and the white grapes, Malvasia, Moscadella and Insolia. While not site specific, he still wants the Munjebel and Susucaru to reflect a place, not a style, comparing it to a Burgundian Cotes-de-Nuits Villages blend.
He goes on to emphasise that the key to understanding what a great terroir is, lies in tasting, tasting, tasting. Frank still continues to buy wines from places he’s not familiar with, and he still continues to buy old vintages from The Greats, explaining that this cultural element of wine cannot be overstated.
Since day one, Frank has farmed organically, according to the rhythms of nature and the cosmos. Unless absolutely necessary, he doesn’t even use sulphur or copper. The vines are left in a very natural state; he doesn't cut the shoots, letting the apex grow, which he believes is very important for the vine's balanced photosynthetic development. To combat the monocultural state of a vineyard, they are interplanted with fruit trees.
While Frank does follow the lunar cycle, he doesn’t believe in applying biodynamic preparations to the vines, feeling that the vineyards should not rely on human beings. He explains,
“You can’t pretend like you want to live in a hospital your whole life, so it doesn’t make sense to continually correct the farming and Mother Nature. Every human body and every piece of land finds its own balance, and that’s why you should follow that land, not “farm” it, or “dictate” it. If you dictate the rhythm and photosynthesis, then man puts him or herself in the place of God, and I don’t follow or accept that. I prefer to follow what nature dictates, and I react to that. For example, this year, we’ll prune differently and we’ll plant later. I follow what comes to me. It’s a different way of looking at it.”
He reflects on his farming experience as a personal journey, and emphasises that perhaps the most important element that he has improved is the practicality. He says,
“When I began, I was doing everything on my own, but I had my own concept. If you work with a consultant, like so many do, you don’t have your own concept, and that’s important. Sure, I made a lot of errors and mistakes, but fine tuned as I went along. Now, we work a lot better together than I did on my own in those first years, but I’m still so involved in what we do, both in the vineyard and in the cellar. 20 years later, the mistakes have been reduced to the minimum.”
He has also begun working with an agronomist, to select specific vines in his vineyards that he feels are promising for the future: a miniature massal selection of sorts. He explains,
“If we speak in ten years’ time I’ll be able to tell you more. We’ve selected five biotypes and we’re also doing selection with friends’ wineries to get a better idea of which biotypes might work better and have more complexity than others.”
Frank made quite the splash on the wine scene when he released his first no-sulphur, unfiltered and amphorae-aged wines in the early 2000s. It’s almost exactly like comparing a breakthrough band’s music critic reviews in the newspapers: Frank’s wines were seen as “stunning” and “utterly compelling” by some, “unusual” by others and even “wanky” by the less enthusiastic wine critics.
The latter, however, he is not. He is unpretentious, never content, and consistently harsh on himself. His goal is always to improve. He was once famous for refusing to use sulphur or filter, but now his rules have relaxed a little and any dogma has taken a back seat. Now, he will filter the wines before bottling (but never fine them - for Frank this is a no-go), and he will add a tiny amount of sulphur (up to 30mg) if he feels the wine needs it, else he will bottle without. He says,
“I suppose you could say that when I first began it was a philosophy of mine to make wine without sulphur. When you don’t put anything into a wine, you have a complete, integral product. But there are so many nuances and details that go on in a wine. At any given moment, if someone says, “ I don’t do anything to my wine,” well - that’s fine if you don’t want to learn your craft, but I do think 2000 years of evolution did leave us with something interesting. Maybe some techniques mess up your wines, but in other cases they’re really good.”
He thinks for a little while, clearing his throat, saying,
“Gradually, instead of having a black and white view of the world, grey tones have come into the vision too. The wines are much better and more nuanced than they used to be. It’s an evolution. I’m never happy with what I achieve, so I always try to do things better and continue to invest in making wine.”
There is, however, a perfectionist that lives inside Frank. He refuses to make excuses for any wines that possess deviant characteristics that take away the purity of site expression:
“I’m looking for profoundness, precision and territory, not a style or a deviation. I don’t mind some deviation, like volatility or reduction, but if a wine is messed up or full of mousiness it’s terrible. Now, you start to hear people say that mousiness can be a quality of natural wine. Well, I say f&^k off, that’s an idiotic thing to say. It’s a serious deviation which pulls away all of the wine’s identity, and the wine becomes a problem. You don’t taste the wine, you taste the mousiness and that dominates the wine, territory and variety so it doesn’t make any sense.”
We can hear the irritation in his voice. Working naturally was Frank’s choice to uncover purity, so to see wines with clean-cut faults masquerading under the terminology of 'natural wines' annoys him to no end. He explains that he does not believe in a natural 'style' per-se, explaining,
“When style dominates the provenance and finesse of a wine, I step back and start questioning what is happening. I come from a very traditional wine culture of learning about great wines, but I also don’t want to be techno-dominated - that’s something else. I search for honest wines that express where they come from.”
He is quick to criticise his own decisions; he by no means puts his own wines on any pedestal, rather knocking them off and working to put them back together. One of the key changes in Frank’s cellar in recent years has been his change in white winemaking from long skin contact to a short four-day period of maceration. He says,
“Yes, I suppose the whites have always been more experimental, much more so than the reds. When I went away from using the orange wine technique for the whites, I was also questioning what I was doing with the reds, but in the reds you don’t feel and sense the fine tuning as much, whereas in the whites you definitely do.”
He explains that he has changed the oxygen management completely, stepped back from maceration, uses colder techniques and keeps the wine in a cooler part of the cellar. There are constant tweaks and ideas. He says,
“If you want to make high definition terroir white wines, and you let the oxidation hit the wine, a bit like a vin jaune style, then you can’t taste the vineyard anymore, so it doesn’t make sense to use a very oxidative winemaking technique for single vineyard whites. They become very good wines, sure, but they’re extremely similar. Whether they’re from the Loire, or Northern Italy, or Etna, they all sort of taste the same. Then you have to start questioning it: does style dominate the terroir? If you want to make a wine of style, that’s fine, but not for a single vineyard wine.”
It is this fine line of human guidance and human interference that Frank constantly straddles, trying to end up on the right side of this invisible line. He explains,
“The whites are very sensitive to technique. You want to make better wines, so you question what you’re doing. Making whites also helps you to better understand rosé for example. I love what I do as a profession, so I use the techniques I learn to make the other wines better...”
He continually tastes his own older vintages, often next to the classics he fell in love with, to continually learn and explore what has worked, and what hasn’t worked.
For Frank, his relationship with Mother Nature doesn’t end with wine. He has a real passion for olive oil, and also farms buckwheat on the land where soils are being prepared for vine planting, as the wheat also helps to regenerate the soil. His future goal is to evolve his land to become polycultural, so his family could be self-sufficient. As we say our goodbyes, we can’t help but think that Frank’s little Etna oasis is rural Italy at its best. This is like returning to an ancestral farm; but one that also creates some of the finest wines in the world.