LONDON - Inspired by the Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy, Tim Marlow, Director of Exhibitions at White Cube gallery, and Sotheby’s Serena Sutcliffe ponder the growing interest in Australian wine and art.

Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly, 1946. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

TIM MARLOW: I was sure there would be some conversation to be had about Australian art and wine, based on the Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art. I was struck by its intelligent use of the relationship with land as a framework. At the start, Aboriginal art represents the “authentic” relationship, then there are attempts by Western colonialists to make sense of the vast wilderness and apply to it Western picturesque values. Does wine cultivation, in spite of its insistence on expressing the land, often try and assert man’s rational values on it.

SERENA SUTCLIFFE: Some winemakers try to impose themselves on the land but the wiser ones go with it. The word “elemental” came to my mind in the exhibition, and winemaking is elemental; it deals with ground, earth, and geology. Kenneth Clarke went to Australia in the late forties and was amazed by the light.

TM: Although he called it “the intolerable continent.”

SS: But light is good – for vine growing, not winemaking. It is luminosity rather than heat that vines love.

Arthur Streeton's Fire's On, 1891. Art Gallery of New South Wales, purchased 1893.

TM: Yet those 19th-century artists, until the Australian Impressionists, don’t really reflect that sublime light. The so-called ‘wilderness art’ of the 20th century, up to John Olsen, Sidney Nolan and others, does wrestle with it. The show became progressively more luminous.

SS: And you went on to Charles Meere’s 1940 Australian Beach Pattern, which I thought terribly Soviet Realist: men and muscles

TM: An amazing painting. Hedonism, and maybe an early example of Australia’s obsession with being “the healthy outdoor continent.” With Max Dupain’s photograph, Sunbaker (1937), of the figure on a beach, I felt its joy but also the skin burning.

SS: It remains a climate of extremes, raw and cruel. You have to cope with that, growing vines. The first vineyard was in New South Wales in 1788. Various people brought grapes over; there was a French wave, a German wave etc.

Rover Thomas' Cyclone Tracy, 1991. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1991. © the artist's estate courtesy Warmun Art Centre. 

TM: Do you know the first to be seen as successful there?

SS: There is the Syrah/Shiraz. I particularly love the dry white Sémillon planted in New South Wales.

TM: This was a very interesting exhibition, but it did raise questions around hype. Sidney Nolan is often named the most original artist of the past century, and seemed so in the context of that show and is strong, but in a show of great 20th-century art he’ll be fairly marginal. How is it with wine?

SS: At the very top, Australian is as good as European or Californian, but there are few of them. It’s a pity this exhibition can’t travel to New York, or elsewhere. The masters of wine made an official visit to Australia in 1985, absolutely catalysing an explosion of Australian fine wine exports. I’m surprised among this tremendous scene in, say, Sydney that there aren’t more young artists making an impact.

Shaun Gladwell's Approach to Mundi Mundi, 2007. Production still from two-channel HD video.

TM: There is one caveat and that’s Aboriginal art, which in the last few decades the world has become more interested in. Occasionally you’re not sure what the motivation for production has been, but at its purest it has an engagement with the wilderness that is outside so much of the art in this exhibition. I like artists engaging with both traditions: Shaun Gladwell mimicking Easy Rider, but his arms are outstretched as if crucified ­– acknowledging this sacred quality. In terms of Australian wine, has something like Penfolds Grange had to have had a conversation with Europe to be successful?

SS: It is utterly its own master and remains a real expression of Australia. Henschke Hill of Grace is another. I kept thinking about Nolan putting Ned Kelly to the forefront. Kelly operated in Beechworth, Victoria – a very good wine area.

Hill of Grace, Henschke Estate. Credit Dragan Radocaj.

TM: Yes, Nolan used artistic license to make a more potent statement about Australia and the outsider, by moving Kelly into the brutal “dead heart” of the country.

SS: When really his area is totally tamed and grows great Chardonnay!

TM: Australian Chardonnays have been controversial, but Leeuwin Estate, from Western Australia, is consistently rated outstanding.

Leeuwin Estate, 2009 Art Series Chardonnay.

SS: And proves that although everyone says Chardonnay, like Cabernet Sauvignon, is ubiquitous, it gets transformed according to where it is. It tastes quite different, for example, in Australia compared to Burgundy Australian wine is fascinating because it is so innovative. Mixing grape varieties, such as Sémillon and Chardonnay, wouldn’t happen in France. In Australia, they’ve blended between different areas too. Penfolds Grange, I would say, is one of the greatest wines produced by blending.

TM: It seems Penfolds is a bigger international player in the wine world than Sidney Nolan is in the history of 20th-century art.

SS: You could definitely say that. Penfolds is a giant.

Penfolds Grange 1998, 6 bottles, sold at Sotheby's for £1,469 on 13 November 2013.