Andrew Guard, importer with a difference

One of the most memorable quotes in Andrew Jefford’s fine book, “The New France”, is this, attributed to the godfather of biodynamic viticulture, Nicolas Joly: “Before being good, a wine should be true.” I’m sorry Mr Joly, but that’s where you part company with me – and, I suspect, Andrew Guard too. Guard brings in some of the most interesting French wines you’re likely to find in this town. He has made ‘natural’ wines something of a specialty, which is very a la mode, but he is keen to make it known this doesn’t mean he likes faulty or badly-made wines.

“It has to be quality first,” he says. “I did my training in Australia and I’m well aware there is zero tolerance for faulty wines in Australia.” He concedes the popular ‘natural’ wine movement in France includes some brown and oxidised white wines made by totally hands-off winemakers. There would be no point bringing those to Australia.

That said, about 20% of Guard’s portfolio are so-called ‘natural’ wines, and these are normally made from grapes grown either organically or biodynamically, and produced using little or no sulfur dioxide. Some of these can be pretty challenging: at a dinner Guard hosted at Balmain’s Riverview Hotel last year I tasted a few wines which had contentious levels of aldehydes, sulfides or brettanomyces. But they were rare: most of his wines that I’ve tasted have been very good, some exceptional.

The majority (about 90%) are either organic or biodynamic; the others are ‘lutte raisonnee’, which is a French expression used by growers who aren’t certified organic or BD but practise a similar kind of thoughtful viticulture.

This is how Guard described his wines to the punters at the Riverview: “I hate boring wines. I’m interested in wines of lucidity, diaphanous wines, wines of soul. Some are what is termed ‘natural’ wines, which means they were fermented with wild yeasts and have no unnecessary additives; often low or no sulfur dioxide; they’re often unfiltered. No reverse osmosis or other tricks have been used to change the shape and flavour of these wines.”

And some of them have names and labels that most Australian French-wine aficionadoes won’t make head or tail of. At dinner at a friend’s home recently I was served a pink sparkling wine labelled Bugey Cerdon Methode Ancestrale from a producer called Renardat-Fache. Served with cheeses, it was delicious.

Guard told me later: “I found it in a bistro in Paris called Le Comptoir. They were serving it free at the end of the meal, and it tasted like a Brachetto or a Moscato.” It comes from near Bourg-en-Bresse, not far from the Jura, and the ‘methode ancestrale’ means the fermentation began spontaneously in tank, the wine was then lightly filtered to bottle and continued its ferment in bottle, and was then disgorged, so that the sweetness and carbon dioxide that remain are natural. It’s made from 90% pinot noir and 10% poulsard, an obscure Jura red grape.

Guard is keen on the Jura and is soon to increase his imports from that region: wines from native grapes savagnin, poulsard and trousseau as well as chardonnay. “Jura seems to be having a renaissance in France at the moment.”

My dinner host also served a more conventional Guard wine, a white Burgundy: Puligny-Montrachet Les Reuchaux 2007, by Clossard & Peyerimhoff, a superb chardonnay by any measure. Like a lot of Guard’s wines, it had no sulfur dioxide added until just before bottling, so the total sulfur level was very low.

At the more extreme end of the scale, you have Alsace whites from Christian Binner (tastings). These are all biodynamically grown, fermented dry, are vinified in oak foudres and never touch stainless steel, and also receive no sulfur till bottling. The colours are deep and golden; the aromas suggest some botrytis-affected grapes – nothing unusual about that in Alsace.

More recently I tasted a clutch of absolutely outstanding Andrew Guard imports: ’08 Matthias & Emile Roblin Sancerre ($45 retail; tremendous mineral, chalky intensity, raciness and harmony) (tastings); ’08 Denis Race Chablis ($39; subtle, delicate, minerally and dry) (tastings); ’08 Domaine Gramenon Cotes-du-Rhone La Sagesse ($57; marvellous spicy, peppery elegance) (tastings); ’08 Eric Pfefferling L’Anglore Nulle Part Ailleurs ($38; a naturally made mourvedre from the Tavel region of the southern Rhone but not permitted the Tavel appellation; dried herbs, cloves and mixed spices, persistent ripe tannins) (tastings); ’08 Domaine Chignard Fleurie Les Moriers ($39; deliciously silky, cherry-ish organic Beaujolais) (tastings) and last but not least, one of the greatest St Josephs I’ve ever tasted: ’07 Pierre Gonon St Joseph ($68; breathtaking concentration, endless palate length, deep, lush and beautifully poised. An absolute revelation) (tastings).

No doubt ‘Guardie’ has people making jokes with his name (vin de gard, Pont du Gard, etc) but his wines are taken very seriously, as is he. Guard first came to light as a Sydney sommelier, working for Tony Bilson at The Treasury and later Ampersand, and in between Forty One, Berowra Waters Inn, Pier and Banc. He imported Australian wine into Malaysia, then worked at Ultimo Wine Centre for a year before starting a nine-year stint as the Sydney representative of Torbreck, making a major contribution to putting this hero Barossa winery on the map.

He began importing in a small way in 2007. Now it’s a fulltime business, staffed by himself and his wife Kirsten. He ships about four containers (3,600 cases) a year, all from France. He covers most of France’s top appellations, with Bordeaux a notable exception – he skirts it because “It’s a law unto itself. Hard to break in. And there are specialist importers already doing a great job with Bordeaux.”

Because 85% of his wines are sold on-premise, they’re hard to find in retail. But if you go to Ultimo Wine Centre, Five Way Cellars and Vaucluse Cellars you’ll more than likely find some. They’re worth hunting for.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 16 February 2010.

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