Savage Wines: one of South Africa’s top producers, making balanced, elegant wines

When I first met Duncan Savage, he was the winemaker at Cape Point. There, he made a great reputation for making profound, mineral, saline white wines with proper ageing potential from interesting, exposed terroirs.

Inside the Salt River winery: the focus is on large-format oak

With the 2011 vintage, he began his own side-project, Savage Wines, in tandem with his day job. These home-brew gigs are one of the reasons why South Africa is such an interesting wine country: young winemakers have a chance to buy interesting grapes and then make some wine without the huge financial hurdle of making a living from their new projects.

Relying on growers is not without its own problems, though. One of the vineyards he sourced from in Villiersdorp (Clairette Blanche, for the Savage White) has been ripped out by the owner, because they can get more money growing apples than these grapes. This is a big threat for many old vineyards in the Cape: the economics of low yielding vines don’t stack up for the growers.

The Savage wines met with great critical acclaim, and it got to the point where Duncan could quit the day job, which he did in 2016 after 14 vintages with Cape Point. Initially, he made his wines in other peoples’ cellars, but now he has his own winery: an urban space in Salt River, Cape Town. The already excellent wines look set to take a further step up in quality now that he has his own place.

The focus is on elegance, and élevage is a critical part of these wines. Increasingly, Duncan is using large format oak (foudres), and together with picking appropriately early and working with interesting sites, these wines are some of the most compelling and elegant of all South Africa’s output. He’s going to start using more amphoras, too, mainly for the Girl Next Door.  ‘When we first played around [with amphorae] we didn’t fire them so high,’ he says, ‘so now we fire the shit out of them so they are essentially neutral.’

Stylistically, he says that he went out on a limb from day one. ‘We made wines that were a bit restrained, not pushing extract,’ he says. ‘The 2011 was 12.5% alcohol. I wasn’t sure how the market was going to receive it. But they are wines that we feel comfortable with, and we love to drink them at home.’ He adds, ‘there is such an opportunity for wines of freshness. We see the trend in the marketplace at the moment and it is incredible.’

The Savage style: picking early, looking for acidity, using a lot of whole cluster where appropriate, and old vines where he can, although he recognizes that there aren’t a lot of old Syrah vineyards in the country.

“There is such an opportunity for wines of freshness. We see the trend in the marketplace at the moment and it is incredible”

Duncan Savage

One change that Duncan has made is in his filtering. He makes use of Lofty Ellis, who is a microscope guy, to decide whether or not to filter. And he has moved away from standard diatomaceous earth filtration sheets to cellulose. ‘There is zero stripping of colour or tannin,’ he says. ‘It has made a huge difference.’ Another change is that he now does about 50% malolactic with his whites, whereas before he did very little.

Duncan and his dad pouring wine at Cape Wine

Cinsault is a big favourite of Duncan’s. ‘I love it. People are not going to take it as seriously as Pinot Noir, so it won’t be perceived as an ultra-premium variety,’ he says. ‘But if you don’t overdo it, you can make a beautiful food compatible wine with elegance. But if you push 14.5% alcohol Cinsault loses the plot big time.’

As we tasted through his 2018s, Duncan says that he’s really happy with them. ‘It was such a nice vintage.’ In contrast, 2017 was drought affected and the fermentations took ages to complete. He thinks this is because of the grapes having lots of fructose after the drought. ‘The ferments would start beautifully, then grind to a halt,’ he says. ‘They taste aldehydic, go oxidative, and then for the last 20-30 g of sugar fermentation would kick in and they would taste reductive.’

‘2018 is a pretty impressive vintage,’ he says. On the basis of this tasting, I agree.

Savage White 2017 Western Cape, South Africa
Fresh and detailed with white peach, pear and citrus fruit. Has finess and lovely texture.  Really fine with subtle tangerine and spice notes. 94/100 (09/18)

Savage White 2018 (sample of the final blend, from 5000 litre foudre)
This is supple, fine and mineral with nice linear fruit. Focused and direct. 92-94/100 (09/18)

Savage Never Been Asked To Dance Chenin Blanc 2017 Western Cape, South Africa
This is Chenin Blanc from a 64 year old vineyard in Paarl, supplemented by some fruit from Malagas, but from 2018 this will be 100% Paarl. Fermented on skins for 5 days. Fresh, grainy and very pretty with lovely citrus and pear fruit. Has a lemon/tangerine edge and a bit of pith. Pure and expressive and really focused. 95/100 (09/18)

Savage Never Been Asked to Dance Chenin Blanc 2018 Paarl, South Africa (sample)
This is Chenin from the Damarakloof vineyard in Paarl. By taking some weeds out and adding some manure they got double the yields – 2.5 tons – this year. Very fine and expressive with real purity and finesse. Great structure. 93-95/100 (09/18)

Savage Follow The Line Cinsault 2017 Darling, South Africa
First made in 2013, although this was the first year it was a varietal Cinsualt (there’s 8% Syrah in the blend). Very fine: fine-grained structure and purity are the hallmarks here. Supple red cherry fruit and real finesse, with lovely texture. Fresh and fine. 95/100 (09/18)

Savage Follow The Line Cinsault 2018 Darling, South Africa (sample from foudre)
11% Syrah in the blend this year. Very fine and linear with amazing presence. Notes of raspberries, cherries and plums with some spice and rosewater hints. Very fine. 93-95/100 (09/18)

Savage Thief in the Night 2017 Piekeneerskloof, South Africa
Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah, 70% whole cluster. Grenache is half the blend but Duncan would like it to be 70% if he could get enough. This has such fabulous purity. Smooth and fine with a lovely harmony to the structured red cherry and raspberry fruit. Real finesse to this wine, which is aged in foudre. 96/100 (09/18)

Savage Thief in the Night 2018 Piekeneerskloof, South Africa (sample from foudre)
70% Grenache this year. Has flesh and density with nice fine spiciness. Lovely intensity here with some fine herbal characters. 93-95/100 (09/18)

Savage Girl Next Door Syrah 2017 Coastal Region, South Africa
From a 0.38 hectare vineyard on the Stormhaven Estate where Duncan lives. He took over this small block and rehabilitated it, and it’s hands on viticulture to the degree that even though this isn’t a cheap wine, he makes no money from it. In 2017 he got one 600 litre barrel, and this year he got a 600 litre barrel plus a 225. So pretty and fine with a bit of meat and some black pepper. Smoothly textured but also with good structure. Very fine and balanced with freshness and finesse. Profound. 96/100 (09/18)

Savage Girl Next Door Syrah 2014 Coastal Region, South Africa
Very refined with some savoury notes of wax, iodine and spice, as well as a saline twist to the concentrated, ripe berry fruits. Very fine grained with good structure and concentration, with amazing definition. 95/100 (11/18)

Savage Are We There Yet 2017 Malgas, South Africa
This is made from young bush vines that Duncan rents from David Trafford in Malgas, where the Sijnn wines come from, and it’s a blend of Touriga Nacional and Syrah. The Syrah is co-fermented as whole bunches with destemmed Touriga. Fresh with lovely purity and good acidity, with nice tannin. Raspberry fruit with a bit of black cherry and some peppery brightness. A lovely floral, vivid, thrilling wine. 95/100 (09/18)

Savage Red 2017 (sample from foudre of the final blend)
This is now a straight Syrah, and it spends a year in 500 litre barrels and a year in foudre. Mostly Stellenbosch with a bit of Swartland. Vivid, fresh and pure with tight, muscular black. Fruits and a little austerity. 93-95/100 (09/18)

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