Yuri Pattison’s latest show at Mother’s Tankstation gallery explores cycles in the military-industrial-academic complex. Upon entering the gallery, viewers are faced with a computer simulation of sunrises and sunsets at the seaside. The sim runs on a single Dell rack-mounted server, which has been customised with a graphical-processing unit (GPU) made by NVIDIA. In an example of intertwined skeins of war and consumerist capital, the GPU, used in gaming consoles, is based upon vector-processors originally developed in the 1970s to model nuclear weapons tests, and used today in high-performance supercomputing. Moreover, thousands of similar GPUs power crypto farms, engaged in a perverse cycle of burning energy to solve mathematical problems, the so-called ‘proof of work’ which creates the scarcity-value underpinning trust-less distributed currencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum.
At the other end of the gallery, a Chinese-made replica of a high-end power amplifier is connected to an atomic clock, driving faintly audible sound from an electrostatic speaker. Development of this type of miniaturised clock was funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which also led development and promotion of the internet as a commercially viable proposition (the internet was originally envisioned as a distributed, node-based communication network tolerant to Soviet nuclear strikes, and was used to connect several military-academic supercomputer installations). In this case, DARPA’s clock, developed with universities such as Caltech, could be deployed on drones or computationally-enhanced field assets (such as special forces operating in urban environments, where GPS access may be spotty or actively jammed).
What might it mean to wire up a military-grade atomic clock to a fake bit of audiophile kit? To one sceptical of globalisation or an impending Thucydides trap, this is the cycle of innovation, reverse engineering, and replication that is steadily eroding centuries of Western technical and military dominance. A related cycle sees Chinese copies of western products, sometimes improved, often inferior, fed back into Western markets, paid for in borrowed-money (lent by net creditor nations in Asia like China), a contemporary version of the petrodollar recycling of earlier decades.
The overall aesthetic effect is of a complex commentary upon (much like Pattison’s 2016 Chisenhale show), if not quite a pointed critique of, contemporary capital cycles, elegantly presented through elaborately sourced and documented objects and writing. There is a muteness to the presentation that is refreshing in a time of droning, didactic voice-overs upon the evils of late capitalism. There is much to pore over and the work is not fussily set out: wires loop around and chip cards are casually placed, as if freed from the tight confines of an actual computer housing. The Dexion angle lends lightness and transparency, and alludes to the foot-lose portability of modern capital.
Some reservations remain – the three works (simulation, atomic clock, and Perspex pieces) didn’t quite come together in a single, punchy impression. In addition, the Chisenhale show also carried an affective charge in the dust and dead skin fragments within the gallery. This show felt comparatively sterile, intellectually-framed, slightly reliant on the press release for explication.
A few other elements spoke, presumably unintentionally, as much to the economy of images and tropes, amplified and accelerated through social media, within contemporary art. The Dexion angle, deployed as exhibition armature, is not so different from the galvanised building studs in Hilary Lloyd’s exhibition at Sadie Coles HQ – but in the latter case it feels more of a unified, sculpturally successful decision. WangShui at the Julia Stoschek Collection (Berlin) similarly uses mass-market bathroom fixings to host a silkworm colony, footage of which is then immersively projected within the gallery. Again, a sense of gesamtkunstwerk and conceptual unity comes across; versus a sense of product-in-gallery in the Pattison case. Lastly, the lock-lights, which reflect Pattison’s interest in locks (and echo with other locks in the installation), unfortunately correspond with the heavily-instagrammed Ghislaine Leung mushroom lights at KW Institute (Berlin).
The 2016 quincentennial of Jeroen von Aken’s death has given rise to two major exhibitions – at the Noordsbrabant Museum (’S-Hertogenbosch) and at the Prado (Madrid). Rather than add to the excellent reviews already written, this essay considers the Prado’s Garden of Earthly Delights primarily as a political object. Three 20th-century European theorists of the state frame the work’s patronage, interpretation, and provenance: Giorgio Agamben, Carl Schmitt, and Alexandre Kojève.
The triptych has long obsessed its aristocratic owners and puzzled historians studying it. Unlike its Netherlandish antecedents, The Garden‘s exterior is painted in precise grisaille, enigmatically depicting either the third day of Creation or the aftermath of the Flood. Inside, the left leaf presents a magical Eden, seemingly at the instant following Eve’s emergence from Adam’s rib. Christ, in common with some of Bosch’s other paintings, looks out, firmly yet gently, at the viewer. The central panel’s formal garden is inhabited by a multitude of fruitophages, naked yet guile-less, both black and white, diverting themselves amorously around a lake, surrounded by vegetal pink towers, blue orbs and a host of friendly animals. The less jolly right-hand leaf, a vision of Hell, is centred upon Bosch’s eponymous ‘tree-man’, below whom a diaphanous devil, seated atop a bog-throne, simultaneously ingests bodies and defecates souls. Yet a parsimonious description omits much: what is it about those monsters that grips us so? Why do we, eagerly if slightly shamefully, stare at those scenes of evisceration, limbs being rent asunder, indiscriminate fornication? The scatological merges with the eschatological, leading the viewer to ask – what was El Bosco up to?
Patronage and Image
Bosch’s images, combining detail, vividness and sheer weirdness invite scrutiny and disputation. Yet, owing to a lack of clear evidence or contemporary accounts, it is hard to establish why, or even when, he painted what he did. It has been proposed that Garden may simply have been a moral allegory. Others have perceived an alchemical theme in the work, while the historian Wilhelm Fraenger saw a primitive and promiscuous Adamite cult at work in the painting.
A more interesting interpretation suggests it may have been commissioned, as a teaching aid, by Engelbert II, the syphilitic Count of Nassau for his nephew and heir Henry III. A cultured man, Engelbert had brought Henry to Brussels, and sought to give him a princely education from the Burgundian court’s own excellent library. Books for rulers-to-be are one of the oldest veins of political writing: prior examples are Xenophon’s Cyropaedia (Greece, 370 BC), Chanakya’s Arthshastra (India, 150 BC – 125 AD), or Machiavelli’s Il Principe (Italy, 1532 AD). As befitting the practices of his sumptuously ornate, performative, and visual court, Engelbert may have wanted to supplement his charge’s education with a magnificent image. Falkenburg links the hermeneutics of the image with the content of a travelling library, which included Augustine’s City of God, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. These, and other texts, are documented as accompanying Duke Phillip the Fair, on his journey to Spain, where he would assume, via marriage, his Spanish possessions.
Moreover, Garden was not a static wall-hanging – it was active object of theatre. First documented by Antonio de Beatis in 1517, it is described as a bizarre thing, calculated to induce stupefaction at the intricacy and variety of its contents. One imagines that the austere grey-black leaves would open in front of the astonished viewer, revealing for an Augenblick a tableau of coloured wonders, only to be slammed shut again, leaving him befuddled as to what was actually glimpsed.
So why do I belabour the origins of a 500-year old painting? Because it begs a question raised by Giorgio Agamben on the role of art today. Whereas in the past art fulfilled a clear spiritual vocation, today it has lost this potency, neither threatening the established social order nor bringing forth truth from the shadows. Agamben also discusses the importance of the patron as a co-creator, rather than merely a source of funding. He specifically points to Popes Julius II and Clement VII as being intimately involved — commissioners, collaborators, tormentors — in the Sistine and (Florence’s) Medici Chapels, respectively. In the same way, one imagines senior members of the Burgundian court, documented as reciting poetry to each other, guiding, even hectoring, Bosch to bring to fruition his phantasmagoric work. In our age, when we have neither courts nor court artists, that crucial transmission channel between audience and artist is much more diffuse, largely mediated by the market, mass-culture, and the ideological proclivities of curators and other tastemakers. Thus the artist must create, seemingly ex nihilo, without any urgent and personal connection to a single figure of authority and patronage. Thus, art has been diluted to a matter of tepid aesthetic appreciation on the part of a great mass of ‘culture vultures’: some more, others less, well-schooled in art theory and history.
Who is my Enemy?
One of Agamben’s philosophical antecedents was the conservative German jurist Carl Schmitt, from whom we get a second perspective on Bosch. Schmitt, immensely influential in political philosophy, had a decidedly chequered record in practical politics. Yet his thought cannot be stripped from its context – the fatally-flawed Weimar Republic, hyperinflation, combined with a decadent Berlin, which, while perhaps admired today with the distance of nostalgia, was in stark opposition to the Zeitgeist of a defeated, occupied, and bankrupt Germany. In his world, Schmitt perceived looming revolution, apocalypse, the eschaton; indeed, it is (Christian) theology that drives his conception of the political.
Schmitt’s Hobbesian view on man’s nature correlated with his interest in Bosch, the demon-painter par excellence. The jurist, commenting on Hobbes’ Leviathan, writes: ‘[Bosch’s] devils are ontological reality, not the products of a fantasy or horror; the landscape is hell, whose fire in many places breaks through the veil of earthly colours…’. In his Gombrich lectures on Garden, Joseph Koerner starts with Schmitt’s relationship with this painting. In 1947, as a prisoner awaiting possible trial at Nuremberg, Schmitt is described by Koerner as reviewing and critiquing Wilhelm Fraenger’s iconological analysis of the triptych. In response to the American interrogator’s question ‘Wer bist du?’ (‘Who are you?’), Schmitt responds with his own ‘a priori “Who is my enemy?”’. For Schmitt had built his very definition of politics around the friend/enemy distinction, with its implicit threat of violence amongst groups or nations, without which ‘life…would be shallow, insignificant, and meaningless’.
So, who was this enemy that so exercised the old man from Plettenberg? His writing states that it is liberal society, cosmopolitanism, the consequent dissolution of all values – a possibility he perhaps perceives in the licentious, gluttonous frolicking in The Garden of Earthly Delights. But can we be more specific? Returning to Bosch, in works such as Christ Crowned With Thorns (London, 1479), or Christ Carrying the Cross (Ghent, 1515), we cannot but miss the apparent, yet not definitively identified, presence of Jews and Muslims. Or, in the triptych Adoration of the Magi (Prado, 1500), we see an enigmatic, partially-unclothed, pseudo-monarch (see image below) with an unattractive leprous sore on his leg. This figure is variously identified as the Antichrist, an alchemical representation of lead, or the Jewish Messiah. The ambiguity in these examples illustrate Schmitt’s point that the enemy is not a factual or objective category, therefore an outsider cannot recognise the enemy. It is a classification made subjectively by a group. Logically then, how does the sovereign, or any outside observer, distinguish between the merely different Other (perhaps living alternatively, but ultimately in a reconcilable and law-abiding manner), and the irreconcilable enemy (who acts outside the law in the name of a radicalised religion). It has not been possible, for the purpose of this essay, to establish to what extent Schmitt had seen or written about these particular paintings while developing his theory of the enemy, but one hopes Prof. Koerner will analyse this point in an upcoming book on the enemy in Bosch and Brueghel’s art.
Schmitt also seems haunted by the katechon, an obscure figure from early Christian theology. Katechon, ‘the restrainer’, who keeps Antichrist at bay until the Apocalypse, is never explicitly identified in scripture, and has had many interpretations over the ages. Schmitt himself refuses to specify who the restrainer is, merely citing as one example, the last Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph. He seems to view it as a category that, in every age and in various guises, has been a bulwark against chaos.
The nature of katechon is important, because it leads to Schmitt’s other major conceptual contribution – the definition of the sovereign. For if the state is not to descend into chaos, it may be necessary, from time to time, to suspend its normative workings (namely the constitution), and impose rule under an exception. In Schmitt’s words: ‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception’. In this sense, the sovereign, by preventing chaos through the instrument of exception, might act as restrainer, in a practical if not necessarily theological sense.
Schmitt’s thought has acquired renewed relevance, in part because other philosophers have built upon it, but also because governments post-9/11 have adopted policies that seem to reference him. Moreover, although Schmitt viewed the exception as a temporary condition, governments have increasingly relied on states of exception or emergency as the ordinary course of business, so to speak. Lastly, Schmitt’s view of a nation and a state that are organised around a friend/enemy distinction, if ever it made sense, throws up particular problems in a multicultural, tolerant society, which the US, UK, EU, and India (to take the most populous examples) identify as. To summarise, while some left-wing commentators therefore view his thought as incompatible with modern democracy, others find a degree of Schmittian influence impossible to avoid, as a practical matter of how a democracy negotiates pressures from competing groups.
Europe’s Unbridged Chasm
To establish our third vantage point, we must step away from Bosch’s paintings themselves, to examine the milieu in which they were created and still exist: namely, a Continent that remains divided between North and South, notwithstanding the EU’s foundational vision of an impartial, technocratic state that would rise above national, linguistic, and ethnic differences.
This post-war environment found a Russian emigrè, Alexandre Kojève working in France’s Ministry of Economic Affairs, planning what would become the Common Market. At a conceptual level, Kojève felt the era of the nation-state was over, and would be supplanted by one of international alliances. In a quixotic yet prescient 1945 memo to General Charles de Gaulle, he predicted Germany as likely hegemon within the new Europe. He also felt that Germany would inevitably fall into an Anglo-American orbit. Germany’s population advantage, proven technological and organisational skill, a Weberian appreciation for work as highest good, and finally a cultural affinity for England, would reduce France to an impotent ‘dominion’ state. He proposed a counterweight – a Latin Empire that would comprise Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy – Greece presumably being left to fend for itself. He next raised a mirror-image of the Schmittian question – what glue would bind the peoples of the proposed Latin Empire, if not ethnicity, nor language, nor religious fervour (France having long become a secular republic), nor a common monarch, nor colonies, not even a rampant American-style capitalism?
Kojève’s answer was a secularised Catholic Church. He envisioned the Church as the historical fountainhead of all European culture, having risen, by the time of the Renaissance, above narrow theology to realpolitik and patronage of the arts, as exemplified in the Janus-faces of the Papal State. Were it to shed its remaining Italian and theological baggage, it might become a unifying cultural force, and thus live up to the full dictionary meanings of the words catholic and œcumenical.
Writing before the messy denoument of France’s own colonial escapade in Algeria, Kojève was relatively silent on how to accommodate non-Catholics – by axiomatically defining a secular Church, he seemed to wave away the question of how Muslims, and others, such as Jews or Gypsies, were to be integrated.
The idea might have remained a curious footnote in the proto-history of the EU. However, in 2013, amidst a continuing crisis in Greece, Giorgio Agamben resurrected the concept of a Latin Empire. Agamben’s provocation caused a predictable firestorm in the German media, to which he gave a rejoinder of wry surprise. Yet, the notion is not as fanciful as it might first seem – although not couched in the grandiose, quasi-theological terms of a Latin (Catholic) Empire, the structure of a ‘two-speed’ Eurozone has become increasingly credible.
What has this to do with Bosch’s painting? At the most simplistic level, the central garden panel may evoke the (apocryphally) care-free Mediterranean life. But the subtlety lies in the left-hand leaf where Christ’s eyes meet those of viewer. Falkenburg extensively comments on this as the spectator being drawn into the speculum of the painting – which one could think of as a personal relationship being created between the viewer and Christ. This, in turn, is essentially the message of the Reformation: direct salvation, with a generous lashing of original sin, bypassing the malefic intermediation of Popes, Saints, indulgences or any of the other panoply of Roman Catholicism. In this light, it is notable that not even a God, seated atop a nimbus of angels, graces the triptych’s interior. Thus this work, painted about 40 years before the Reformation, foreshadows a humanist and anti-institutional perspective on faith.
Provenance also illuminates the North-South divide. In 1567, Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alba and Spain’s greatest general, was sent to the Netherlands by King Phillip II to crush a growing civil and religious insurrection. Alba’s action in the Netherlands would inaugurate the Eighty-Years War, ending in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, which of course was the starting point of Carl Schmitt’s analysis of the nation-state. The result of the War are still visible: Protestant Flanders and The Netherlands, Catholic Wallonia and Luxembourg. Koerner, perhaps employing poetic license in his Gombrich Lectures, depicts (Spain’s own) Iron Duke, obsessed by this painting, as declaring a state of emergency primarily to acquire it. Eventually though the triptych ended up in Philip II’s collection. One imagines this most Spanish of monarchs, alone in his monastery-fortress at El Escorial, grimly signing warrants for The Inquisition’s autos-da-fé, his days lightened only by the Apocalyptic visions of an obscure Netherlandish painter.
Notes & References
1) Hieronymus Bosch’s family seems to have come from Aachen, though his name was eventually Latinised and linked to the town in which he worked, ’S-Hertogenbosch. Source: Laurinda Dixon, Bosch (London/New York: Phaidon Press, 2003), 20.
A visitor to Yuri Pattison’s exhibition User, Space at the Chisenhale Gallery is confronted by a large, nearly empty, room that is, paradoxically, filled with stuff. Orange industrial shelving on two walls support stacking plastic boxes, miniature designer furniture and computer servers. In the middle is a long glass table flanked by semi-opaque room dividers, a profusion of transparent Eames chairs covered in plastic sheeting, and a pile of plants under a steel canopy. Rectangular panel lights, hanging overhead, come on and off at seemingly random intervals, and the room is filled with the hum of computer equipment. Monitors abound while electrically actuated bottles emit vapour.
There is little physical transformation of materials – other than said plastic sheeting, quite a lot of dust, and electronics stripped of casings. Lighting and electric window-films are controlled by computer server, while cameras feed live footage from the gallery to a monitor. A large monitor shows a video based on the architecture of co-working spaces. Some notable contemporary art tropes are missing: 3-D printed objects, UV-printed plastic, casts of body parts (though there is a little finger stuck onto a server), crutches-as-sculpture.
In an accompanying printed interview, one learns that Dexion shelving units relate to Pattison’s interest in global logistics. He talks about an Amazon fulfilment centre in London, recalling for the viewer how work and labour have changed in the contemporary gig economy. The interview goes on to explain that transparency, surveillance, modification of sleep patterns, and the history of computing are amongst the ideas that occupy Pattison.
He also talks about the work-leisure slippage, a phenomenon that started with the mobile internet, and developed most famously in Silicon Valley offices with their bean-bags, ping-pong tables, and free food. On a related note, companies like WeWork, which started by developing co-working spaces, are now building ‘co-living’ spaces. In a co-living arrangement, millennials, finding city-centre housing unaffordable, rent rooms in a shared flat (often decked out as a loft with exposed brick, cable runs and concrete), complete with ‘concierge’ services like cleaning and laundry. Sounds like a conventional flat-share, except that the flats are owned by a large corporation; in WeWork’s case, valued at sixteen-billion dollars. Co-living and its economics have attracted mild incredulity in the venture-capital press, and apoplexy in the art press.
Pattison’s particular take is how these practices result in individuals who “isolate themselves…[and] create a physical filter bubble”, resulting in a “disengagement with the fabric of the city”. Moreover, the sharing economy means time gets carved up, as people rent desks by the hour or co-living spaces by the week, again to the potential detriment of the broader community. Yet this isn’t really picked up, visually, in the installation – the videos and CGI feel a little lazy and could have taken a more critical perspective.
The 14-page interview is fascinating in its breadth, touching on almost ever trendy topic in contemporary cultural and economic theory: Bitcoin-mining rigs, pop-up restaurants and stores, the new international style in interior design, coffee culture, mass-marketing of Modernist furniture, and so forth. These first-world concerns, arguably familiar only to the culturally-aware metropolitan, when combined with the visual poverty of the exhibition, fail to move or surprise the viewer.
The closest Pattison perhaps gets to eloquence, is in the dried sebum and dust covering many surfaces – the abjection of which somehow speaks to the absence of the worker, of the human. One misses the jargon, rituals of coffee, cigarettes or Soylent, inside jokes, backstabbing, gossip – all of which characterise shared places, whether of work or life.
To end with a counter-example, consider Simon Denny. He has similar concerns: intersection of corporate and hacker culture, surveillance, the physical and digital material of the work environment. In contrast to Pattison, Denny’s 2015/2016 exhibition at the Serpentine maintained a tight focus on organisational and software structures. He married, mediated, and abstracted the graphic and architectural elements of corporate and governmental intelligence entities, producing an installation of sculptures memorable as much for their totemic presence as for any politically-charged content.
The overwhelming sense of Pattison’s show was that of a research project rendered visible, almost a ‘core dump’ (computing term for the aftermath of a crash: the entire contents of memory are dumped into a file, to help programmers debug). That is not to suggest the collection or display were un-curated or arbitrary, and there were some clever twists, such as a circulating economy of Bitcoins that are mined using free electricity. Yet somehow, there was a whiff of incoherence, and it is not clear the interview, perhaps due to the sheer catholicity of Pattison’s avowed interests, helped. Most importantly, the social element that energises any working or living space, was missing. Yet one could argue, it was precisely that exclusion of the human that generated a pathos and brought forth the moral and ideological bankruptcy of the sharing economy.
The wines of Sicily have long had an undistinguished history. They were known as powerful and tannic feedstock for the more tepid strains of the northern Italy and Calabria. Much of the wine was produced in cooperatives, often in the press-cum-warehouse called a palmento. When the EU outlawed the palmenti as unhygienic (cue Brexit contingent’s ferocious gnashing of teeth ‘bloody Brussels bureaucrats !’), Sicily finally moved into the era of modern winemaking. The Art of Eating issue 65  is an excellent and poetic, albeit dated, introduction to Sicilian wine.
This article is more of a photographic survey of the area, contextualised with food, rather than a particularly knowledgeable review of wine – the links below are a good start, and there are plenty of wine blogs with great articles on Etna DOC.
One cannot drink wine in Sicily without a little sense of the climate. Sicily’s Pozzallo port is located further south than Tunisia’s Cape Bon, and the African sun affects all. The heat saps one’s desire to do anything, least of all drink the off-dry, alchoholic production. As Luigi Veronelli (taken from AoE65) put it: the wines of Sicily ‘flash like a knife…leave the unprepared drinker more dead than alive’. While, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote of the pouring style practiced by footmen of the Bourbon-era – ‘no collars’ i.e. up to the brim. He goes on: ‘ “Only water is really good”, [Don Fabrizio] thought like a true Sicilian; and did not dry the drops left on his lips.’
Yet it is all different on Mount Etna. In the curious landscape of Etna Nord, away from the tourists who throng the beautiful sun-drenched green south slope, we find a gentler, cooler clime, hospitable to such vines as can survive in the rich but unyielding soil. From Randazzo to Linguaglossa heading clockwise on the SS120 lies an extraordinary zone of production that has, in the past 10 years, attracted tremendous, well-deserved, attention. As ever, an excellent introduction is Jancis Robinson, but Eric Asimov at the New York Times has also energetically championed Etna, and Sicily generally. Very briefly, the principal grapes are Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio for reds, while Catarrato, Carricante, and Minella Bianca fill out the whites.
The terroir has been most memorably described by Marco de Grazia (see below) as the ‘Burgundy of the Mediterranean‘. He sees Burgundy’s variety of soils and fickle climate mirrored in Etna’s geography: the DOC encircles the mountain for 120 sq km, with exposures ranging between full north to full south; rainfall 6-10x Sicilian average with one of the latest harvests in Europe; volcanic soil with layers of lava flow interpenetrating, creating soil zones, only hundreds of metres separated, yet that originate in eruptions thousands of years apart; and lastly, an altitude range of 400-1000m. Despite all the variety, the wines, and how they interact with the food and landscape of Eastern Sicily, seem to have a deep unity and embedded history.
Our trip started in Bronte & continued, via Catania, to the Baroque jewels of Noto and the sea at Siracusa. Yet it was in the misty, brooding slopes of the devil’s mountain, as Etna was known to the Arabs who once ruled it, tramping amongst vineyards and fields of pistachio & almonds, that we were happiest.
Every day the mountain would be different, often with clouds blown from the south, giving an English aspect to the hill towns. On certain days, one could see the slightly different denser clouds expelled from the craters of Etna – sole sign that Monjebello could, once again, erupt. All around was evidence of volcanic activity, as ravines were filled in with volcanic rock, while the soil was often crumbly black, almost a fine black talc. This soil often had few weeds or plants, for it is rough and inhospitable. Yet, for those hardy greens which can survive, it is nutritious.
The legendary & idiosyncratic winemaker Frank Cornelissen inspired the trip, and we mostly drank his wines and those of a few other producers who share his philosophy – a fidelity to the earth that most winemakers preach, but few practice. In the tasting at his cantina, he told us about his background and how he came to Etna, and his approach to making wine. As an glimpse of what winemaking really boils down to, it was invaluable, particularly as we have seen and drunk his wines over years, and remember the especially volatile and idiosyncratic wines of the early days. Some of his wines employ skin contact, yet he made an interesting comment on orange wine, a trend that’s gripped the weingeist in London and New York. His sense was that orange wines tend to have a certain similarity of flavour – they resemble each other, in their oxidative notes and strong tannins, more than they fully express individualities of terroir. While I am not sure I can entirely see the wines of Gravner or Radikon in that way, I do agree, that, in lesser producers’ hands, after one subtracts the colour and tannin, there’s precious little left of fruit or individuality.
Cornelissen also gave an example of a cold maceration as an approach that let’s him get the things he wants, such as the transfer of natural yeasts from grape skins to the juice, without undesirable effects, such as transfer of tannins.
That said, Cornelissen is all about expressing the identity of the land, grape, and vintage, with as little intervention in the cantina as possible.
Cornelissen, like many of the other top producers in the area, uses the archaic alberello approach to training vines. The French term is gobelet, but the gist of it is that vines are trained to form a clump of vine leaves and suspended fruit, around a central spur, so resembling a wine goblet or a tree. Given there is a minimum of external support (i.e. trellis or wire), the weight of the grapes can cause them to drag on the ground, hence this is a method better suited to low-yield varieties. It is also well-suited to Sicily’s relatively dry climate and difficult soil – because of the vine’s bushy, clumpy structure there is enhanced risk of damp and rot. This is also a fiddly approach that requires more manual work, and, combined with the steep terraced terrain, it’s not a surprise that Cornelissen requires a (very glamorous) enclosed tractor: Sicily’s answer to the Lamborghini tracked-vehicles we saw in the mountains of the Abruzzi.
Asked about what he thinks amphorae do, he was characteristically forthright – he lines his in epoxy, so they are essentially neutral vessels of 400 hectolitre volume, nothing more or less. He didn’t see any particular attraction, in the final product, to lining them with beeswax, making them out of terra-cotta, etc., as other producers sometimes claim. Georgia, a country with an illustrious and long history of wine-making, was one of Cornelissen’s first stops when he made the transition from wine trader to novice vignero. He recounts how Georgian oenology perhaps ended up pursuing traditional approaches, such as kvevri (amphorae), without questioning them sufficiently. Indeed, Georgian wine is somewhat ‘rustic’ (Cornelissen’s term), but I find it works well with the spicy, flavourful food of that land.
Similarly, his comments on the palmento were telling – they weren’t particularly hygienic ways of making wine – and as in any natural wine-making operation, Cornelissen has essentially no defence against harmful bacteria. That is, other than taking great care to keep kit clean, keeping the cantina cold, and, in the field, hoping it doesn’t rain too much.
Cornelissen’s cantina at Passopisciaro is bracketed by two fine eno-restaurants: San Giorgio e Il Drago in Randazzo, and Cave Ox in Solicchiata. San Giorgio is a joyous, casual place, particularly when one of the younger proprietors is on the floor – and it is, hands down, the best value on (high-quality) food or wine, that we have found in Sicily. Its wine list is exclusively Sicilian, with many Etna names. Cave Ox, owned by Sandro Dibella, is a bit of a legend – a phenomenal and wide-ranging wine list, both Sicily and otherwise. In particular, it’s great fun to drink awesome wine there with the equally spectacular pizze, though his lunch menu was some of the finest food we had on the trip. Prices are slightly higher, but it’s emphatically worth it – and it’s worth staying the night. In both places, we saw mostly local people eating simple food and drinking modestly-priced wine. It was early in the season, but there was a smattering of the international eno-set tootling along from village to village in rented Audis.
Other producers have gravitated to the area – such as Marco de Grazia who runs Tenuta delle Terre Nere near Randazzo. His vineyards are from 700 to 900m, and one parcel has pre-phylloxera alberello vines of 140 years age. The wines, while slightly spicy, have a chewy sort of minerality, described by Jancis Robinson as a ‘cappucino’ edge. Their soils range from volcanic pumice to volcanic sand mixed with basaltic pebbles and ash. The terrain is steeply terraced, and again, needs to be tended by hand.
Tuscan winemaker Andrea Franchetti’s Passopisciaro makes some phenomenal wines, both with the local grapes but also transplants such as chardonnay in the 2013 entry-level Guardiola white, from a parcel at 1000m, vinified in stainless steel and aged in wood botti grandi. Franchetti also makes single-contrada reds, and like wines from some other producers, the pale, perfumed production of nerello mascalese bring to mind northern greats like Pinot Noir as expressed in Chambolle-Musigny or Gevrey-Chambertin, or Nebbiolo as expressed in Gattinara.
We drank Alberto Graci’s wines a few times, as they were amongst the most affordable. Like Franchetti, Cornelissen, and Wiegner, Graci is an import from the north (a Milanese banker in this case, albeit with Sicilian roots), his parcels are also near Passopisciaro. This bianco is a blend of Carricante and Catarratto and was actually one of the loveliest and most versatile we tried, particularly with food.
The last producer we sampled, albeit back in London, was Salvo Foti’s I Vigneri, a collective named after a winemakers’ guild of 1435. His Vinudilice comes from a parcel nestled in a forest of holly oak (quercus ilex giving the name), near Bronte, located at 1300m, probably making it one of the highest vineyards in Europe. The grapes are Alicante, Grecanico, Minella Bianco, Minella Nera, and Nerello Cappuccio, growing on alberelli vines 100-200 years old. The soil is ash and sand, and the terrain requires Foti to employ Ciccio the mule – fair competition to Cornelissen’s tractor. This was a pretty remarkable rose – pale in colour, strong acidic backbone, but a tremendous complexity of nose and palate – really not like any other rose we’ve had. That complexity, I suppose, was the pure expression of rock and ash. We paired it firstly with boquerones, then a guinea fowl roasted in wine and grappa – secondo Patience Gray’s recipe from Carrara. Vinudilice is available retail at Noble Fine Liquor and also through Les Caves de Pyrene.