Duncan Savage and the charisma of South African Old Vine Blends

Duncan Savage is part of a new wave of young South African winemakers celebrating old vineyards and employing an artisanal approach in their winemaking. Formerly the winemaker at Cape Point Vineyards, Duncan launched his own label in 2011. He sources grapes from high altitude and maritime influenced vineyards around the Western Cape and uses fruit from small hand-selected parcels that showcase the unique terroir of the particular vineyard.

Grape Collective: How did you decide on an urban winery?

Duncan Savage: The thing is, if you haven't been employed for a long time, you can’t go and loan huge amounts of cash from the bank here, because money is expensive in South Africa.So if you start investing in big pieces of land building the wineries, your debt will kill you very quickly. So this for me, it made great sense to do something that I could afford here.

We bought a section of a building, so it’s not the whole thing. It’s difficult to work, because it’s all these little nooks and crannies and everything like that, but it’s got character, the place is cool. And we were able to, as a result, do it relatively cost-effectively. All the equipment around us, it’s all second-hand, fix-it-up, it’s wood, you clean it up, put a lid on here, and bit of this, and it’s been brilliant.

So we wanted to be in control of our own destiny. So we own what we have here. We just don’t own our own vineyards yet, which is something we’ll obviously work to in years to come.

And, talk a little bit about the philosophy at SAVAGE. What were you trying to accomplish with your own label?

Look, everyone says you’ve got to make wines that you want to drink yourself and all that kind of stuff, but at the end of the day, we’ve developed a relationship, should I say, with a lot of different vineyards around the Western Cape over the last couple of years. So when we started out, we had a bit of a plan of what we wanted to do, and we haven’t stuck to that, because we found interesting parcels that we thought might work, might not work, develop slow relationships, start to get going.

But essentially what we’ve always liked to do is, elegance and purity which have been the name of the game. So, also looking where we are, we’re in South Africa, hot climate, lots of sun, ripening grapes is no problem. 

Our problem is freshness. So if, you're picking ripe, you need to intervene. We don’t want to intervene if we can help it. So it just makes sense to pick early. So naturally our style has followed that route where we are working with varieties like Cinsaut, Grenache, Syrah, it’s not like Cabernet where you so... With Cabernet if you’ve got pyrazine or a big canopy, trying to rid of that pyrazine is hugely difficult. But with Grenache, Cinsaut, and Syrah, you’ve got a lot of room to play. You can pick, you can make a wine at 12 alcohol, you can make a wine at 15 alcohol.

For us it just, in South Africa, makes sense to make something a 12 to 13.5. We don’t pick on alcohol, we pick on freshness, essentially, and it works. So we’ve ended up creating... I don’t want to say house style, that sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s like... If you look at all of our wines, they have a purity and an elegance and a refinement. And someone who wants something that’s chunky and oaky, our wines are not going to be their port of call. But if you want something that’s got refinement, purity, elegance... A bit of brightness to the wine, I think is super important, so we try and achieve that where possible. Obviously every vintage doesn’t allow, but it’s worked so far.

You work with different growers around South Africa. Talk a little bit about the type of vineyards that you’re working with and the farming that goes on there.

Yes so look, the industry that people see, it’s the show-side of the industry, and everyone’s standing looking all shwanky behind a wine stand, pouring their wines. The real people behind the industry are the guys getting their hands dirty and on the ground.

SAVAGEI’ve had the privilege of working with some amazing South Africans, and guys that are farmers through and through, whether they’re farming with wheat, sheep and a little bit of grapes, or only grapes... Okes are legends, they know their soils. I go to some guy and I say, look, I’m keen on this vineyard, and I say we need to do this, we need to take the canopy off, we need to plow, we need to... Or whatever. The farmer might turn around and say, actually, but you don’t want to do that. My grandfather used to do it like this, my father did it like this. They might not have a wine knowledge, but they understand their terroir if they’re a good farmer. And I think that’s the thing, so it’s learning how to tap into that with these guys, and developing a relationship with these growers that you become buddies with the guys, you tap into their knowledge of their soil on their site.

And I think that farming is my first love. I did it at Cape Point for years. If you really are proactive on that side of things, you take a lot of the guessing and the work out of the things in the winery. So there’s a lot of opportunity to do it right before it gets here.

From the South African context, granitic soil, we’ve got a lot of decomposed granite here, a lot of very weathered forms of granite, which is great because you get these very sandy soils. Sandy profiles in the top clay and in the subsoil. Amazing to work with.

And working for someone else to starting your own business, it’s a big jump. How did you decide to take that step? And what are some of the challenges in being a winemaker and a small business owner?

Yes, look, the wine industry, it’s an emotional game. And I think that’s what a lot of guys see... It’s the downfall of many people, I suppose, but... The thing is you become very emotionally attached to your wines. You become emotionally attached to the vineyards you work with. It’s super cool to work for someone but your heart always yearns to... You want to do your own thing. Every winemaker wants to do that. Some guys don’t get the opportunity, some guys don’t want to take the risk. I set myself a target, I was going to do it come hell or high water and if we crashed and burned, we crashed and burned.

So the time I had being employed was awesome ,because I got to work on a super cool property, we made some lekker wines, but this was always going to be the plan. So I said by the time I’m 35, I’ve got to be doing this, and I only ended up doing it by the time I was 38, but it was close enough. And yes, the challenges are real. You can’t just do something because you think it’s...

You fall in love with this wine, you’re going to bottle it, you’re going to do it, and you’re going to hope you’re going to sell it. We were speaking about earlier, you got to be able to make something that you know you can sell. So, it’s got to sit with you right that if you are at home, and you pull that cork, it’s got to be in line with what you want to do. But it’s also got to offer the business opportunity as well. So balancing the two, I’m definitely not the world’s best businessman, I think I suck to be quite honest, but somehow we made it work so far. So ya, we’ll see how we go.

Duncan, tell us a little bit about your history as a winemaker. 

Been in the game for 20 years. Look, at the end of the day I studied, and when I left school didn’t know what the hell I was going to do. So, studied a B-com, so just a basic business marketing type thing and then just fell in love with wine. Went from getting hammered with my mates at the bar, to actually spending all my student cash on trying to buy some wine, so it was fantastic. And then I just went and studied at Elsenburg, which is a little farm just outside of Stellenbosch.

My biggest fear at that point was that I was going to get a job in a place like Tulbagh or something. Not that Tulbagh is not a cool place, it’s just quite far from the sea. I grew up at the sea and like to surf. So I ended up getting this job at a place called Cape Point Vineyards, which is two kilometers from the front gate of the beach. So this golden pathway, wine, surf, it was just amazing. And then I left there in 2016, and now doing my own thing at SAVAGE. So it’s  lekker.

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So Duncan, tell us a little bit about the philosophy of winemaking at SAVAGE?

So winemaking, as I say, if we can get it right in the vineyard then it takes a lot of the guesswork out of it here. So, already we’re working with vineyards that we know we can identify with. We know what the soils are like, we know what to expect. It’s generally older parcels.

Look, at the end of the day we’ve always liked wines of purity and elegance. Well, it’s dictated by your climate to certain extent, so at the end of the day we want to work with varieties that we don’t have to intervene with much. We know that varieties like Cinsaut, Grenache and Syrah are very effective in South Africa, and you’ve got such a lot of scope. You can pick early, you can pick ripe, you can do whatever you really want to do. There’s flexibility, it’s not like Cab, it’s not like Merlot. Well, I suppose the reality is that your climate dictates that you can do that, but at the same time if you’re picking ripe with a variety like Cinsaut, there’s not a lot of acidity.

You need to then think, well, hang on, what am I going to do? Am I going to acidify? Am I going to intervene? Am I going to do all of this, which you don’t want to do. So it just make sense, pick early for freshness, there’s a vibrancy to the wines, there’s a purity, there’s that red fruit brightness, which we want. And it’s been awesome because it shows through all our wines. I said earlier like a house style, which sounds a bit cheesy, but it is like that. People can associate with... If they drink a bottle of Follow the Line, they’ll know that if they drink SAVAGE red, it’s not going to suddenly be this massively oaky chunky monster.

It’s going to still have purity, a little bit of... Sort of a linear, tightly wound core to the wine, which I think is important. At the end of the day, we don’t want to look at some of our mates, that like wine-drinking has to be on an occasion. And I think if you look at people that are real wine people, they want to drink wine all the time. The problem is there’s not enough liver capacity on our budget, but it’s like... If you’ve got purity and freshness, and the wines are refreshing, they pair with a lot more meals. They’re easier to drink and it just fits in with the vineyards we’re working with.

And talk a little bit about how the South African wine industry has evolved over time.

Yes look, actually the last 10 years has been crazy, it’s insane. Another thing just on your question earlier with the style, a lot of guys in the past, what they were doing is the trend... This links your current question, but the guys emulated what was happening in France to a certain extent. So, if Bordeaux was using 50% new oak, okes were wanting to use 50% new oak here. So we’re also seeing that our fruit is obviously different. There’s a huge difference between what’s happening in Europe, and what’s happening here.

So people are starting to work towards more neutral vessels. You can see around the winery here, really old five hundreds, older neutral Foudre, concrete to try and respect the fruit and not try and overpower. So it gives us an opportunity to showcase the terroir better, if that makes sense, without putting all that makeup on and try and dressing up the wines. And then it also shows South Africa, it shows what our terroir is without making it taste like a tree in France essentially.

So the South African industry, if I think about when I started out it was kind of like that blinker scenario, okes were focused on making what the local market consumed. People tasted quite a bit of international stuff. Ironically, if you look at what happened in the old days, like the sixties, the seventies, there were some pretty classic wines that came out of that era. And then winemaking came into the equation and people started with the oak, and started with all these kind of additions, and extract and all that kind of stuff. It all sounds quite cool, so everyone went for it. And then a lot of guys went down that rabbit hole. And then slowly but surely people have started to realize you don’t need to do that. Like we talked about with a stylistic thing earlier, having that refreshing concept, acidity, a lively energy to a wine is super important.

SAVAGESo I think the South African market, or the producers have realized that, firstly, it’s not just about winemaking, so go back to farming. Start trying to understand your site. Start trying to have the right variety on the right site. Not like what some guys were doing, is buy a piece of land, I’ve been to Bordeaux, that’s lekker, lets plant Cabernet and Merlot. Where you should actually be planting, maybe Syrah and a bit of Grenache and some Chenin or something.

People have become more wise from a viticultural point of view and then learning to stand back in the cellar. So, if I look at South African wines over the last 10 years, there’s been a monumental shift in quality. It’s insane.

I’ve been at tastings overseas where people say, no, they will not drink South African wine. And if you don’t tell them it’s South African and you pour for them, they’ll tell you how amazing the wine is, and then you say, well, have a look.

So there’s a lot of cool things happening. There’s a great energy in the industry amongst producers at the moment. People are really keen to show what we can do here. And South Africa’s a frigging great country. So it’s awesome, man. We’ve got a lot going for us.

And what are some of the challenges that South African wine is facing?

Look, I think as a country we have a strong affiliation with Europe, the UK and a lot of the European countries understand the dynamic, there’s history. South Africa is not a foreign concept. I think the challenge is often in the States, I think a lot of people haven’t necessarily been to South Africa.

They have an idea of Africa, but this little bit at the South doesn’t quite resonate with people. So, a lot of consumers will stick to what they know in the form of, obviously, American wines, and then Italian, French and Spanish because it just is an easy go-to. I think South Africa, people are... What is in our favor, I suppose, is that people are becoming more adventurous and their drinking habits. I think there’s a lot of people keen to try different things. But people, hopefully, will explore and will try South Africa, because it’s like anything, once you’ve had a good experience with something you’ll be keen to try more. And what we are seeing at the moment, is a lot of people are coming here on holiday, they’re getting to see what a great place it is.

And once you’ve been to a place, then it’s fantastic. People get an idea and a feel for what really is going on here. So challenges wise, I’d say that’s one of them as an identity element.

Our other big challenge is water, it’s very dry, we’ve had a long drought in the last while. A lot of our older vineyards are from dry land. So trying to maintain longevity is a big factor. Everyone wants to make wines from older vines. They go into a natural balance, and you can make some fantastic wines. So it’s just trying to manage scarcity of water, and then just be able to get the wines into the market.

Photography and videography by Piers Parlett, video editing by Max High Cuchet