An interview with Mark Savage
By Huw Owen
We all enjoy the odd glass of wine, but fewer people get more from each sip than Mark Savage, founder of wine suppliers, Savage Selection. His passion has taken him from running wine appreciation societies at both school and university, to sourcing high quality vintages from carefully selected, often small-scale, producers. He has been a Master of Wine since 1980, and is generally more impressed by delicacy and finesse in a wine than by mere power. Huw caught up with him to discover more about what inspires him and how he brings our favourite wines from the vineyard to our tables.
Wine is at the heart of who you are. When and why did you first get interested in wine, and how has that interest lasted so long?
My interest was first fired by reading Hugh Johnson’s book, “Wine”, when I must have been about 15. I started buying half bottles from the local Peter Dominic shop with my pocket money, e.g.1962 Chateau Bel Orme Tronquoy de Lalande. My tasting note in 1966 reads “exceptionally good value, with characteristic floweriness of the ‘62s...” That cost 16 shillings which I think equates to around 80p in today’s money, but without taking inflation into account. Tasted at the same time was another minor claret, a 1961 Clos Pressac from Saint Emilion, also about 16 shillings worth, which I noted “compared rather poorly with the ’62 bel Orme…the ‘61s are slower to mature, though I doubt if that was the real reason”. In 1967 I found a 1962 Pichon Longueville Baron to be “most disappointing, dusty, lacking any finesse, dull, unpleasant even. 28 shillings.” A more enthusiastic note appears for the 1959 Cos D’Estournel bottled by Lebegue rather than the chateau, “a deservedly famous wine…21 shillings”.
This early interest encouraged me with three other contemporaries to establish a wine appreciation society at Ampleforth, a Benedictine monastery school in North Yorkshire. It may have been a cunning ruse to try and get some alcohol into the place with some degree of official approval. Finding myself next at Oxford I quickly looked about for a wine tasting society and soon found myself on the greasy pole of the Oxford University Wine Circle, as treasurer, secretary, president etc. This provided a marvellous opportunity to taste a lot of rather serious wine at someone else’s expense - music to the ears of almost any student. I also found myself part of the OU Wine Tasting team along with people like Charles Metcalfe and Oz Clarke. The team remained undefeated during our time together, a tribute to the many hours of hard training that we put in I suppose!
My interest has remained firm, I think because there is always so much more to learn, with an infinite supply of new and original wines emerging every year from all over the planet. You can never feel that you have reached the end of the book.
You’re an acknowledged wine expert, a Master Of Wine. I think all our readers will be dying for a recommendation or three!
I will always try and shy away from being introduced as an expert. In my experience, most people who claim to be wine experts are pretty ignorant. I am happy to admit, however, to having many years of experience under my belt, which is not quite the same thing. I have spent an arguably disproportionate amount of time visiting vineyards and cellars over much of the wine world and I continue to do so which means that I am out of the UK typically at least once or twice a month as we work directly with some 50 small family owned and controlled wine farms in about 12 countries.
As for recommendations, I think it is usually good to try and persuade people to try something different, to get them out of their immediate comfort zones and convince them that better value can often be found in less well known places. We want to open their eyes, to help them to share some of our own pleasures and enthusiasms.
Your philosophy of wine and the business you have built with it, Savage Selection, is around seeking out the smaller, local, non corporate wine producers around the world. How do you find them? And how difficult is it for them to thrive and compete in a globalised world of multinational brands?
I do not think it is a problem for these small growers to compete in the world you mention, precisely because there is a growing market among individual wine enthusiasts as opposed to the mass market. The challenge for the good small grower is simply to ensure that they can produce wines that are intrinsically more interesting than the big brands. If they cannot do so then they are in the wrong job or the wrong place.
How do I find the best producers? Well, I guess that luck plays a large part, but of course you get luckier if you keep your ears and eyes open and spend a lot of time visiting the vineyard regions themselves. That is why I can justify spending perhaps 20% of my time, one day in five if you like, in a vineyard. I would happily spend even more time, but I am always conscious that I also have to sell every bottle of wine that I buy and that too takes time, on different roads and with many different sorts of people. The important thing remains the same: identifying the right people, those who will not waste the ever more limited and precious time left available.
Are there any wines in any TravelLocal destinations you can recommend? We cover Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Georgia and of course the world’s 6th biggest wine producer… China.
I have no first hand knowledge of South America, I must admit, and at my age I doubt if I am going to be investing precious time and energy doing the necessary legwork on the ground in China. I am happy to leave that to the next generation of wine sleuths. South Africa however has been a regular destination of mine since well before the end of apartheid. I was actually born in Africa, though admittedly in Uganda, not exactly a country well known for good vineyards. I think that South Africa is a natural paradise for viticulture and the production of excellent wines, with a favourable climate and some interesting soils and locations. It has a long track record for producing excellent wines and the past 25 years or so have witnessed further dramatic progress. It remains one of my absolute favourite wine destinations. No other wine region is more beautiful and the exchange rate in a post-Brexit Britain is still in our favour. It is a brilliant place for a holiday for so many good reasons including the most obvious ones of scenery, good wine and food, very obliging service and that helpful exchange rate that can make it feel cheaper than staying at home!
Other good wine and travel destinations for the future if you have not already considered them? Greece, Slovenia, Sicily, Austria, Northwest USA., to name but a few….
Georgia has a fair claim on being the world’s oldest wine producer, with evidence going back about 6,000 years. Have you ever been there to verify that claim, and what do you think of the Georgian wines you’ve tried?
Very little proper experience so far and I have not been to visit yet, but the Caucasus can lay a credible claim to be the cradle of viticulture and the area surely has good potential for making good wine, especially if it updates its vineyard and cellar management techniques. Georgians are reputed to be very long lived, so maybe that is because they drink lots of good wine.
On behalf of Tom (co-founder of TL) I feel I need to ask you if you also drink beer? And what beers have been the most memorable (good...and bad)?
I do indeed drink and much enjoy a variety of good ales from various corners of the globe, the UK of course, but also from many good breweries in the Pacific Northwest USA. Whenever I touch down in Seattle airport, I make a beeline for a quick pint of Alaskan Amber inside the terminal while I wait for a connecting flight to Portland, Oregon, or better still if staying overnight in Seattle, I head up to the Hilltop Tavern on Queen Anne and get myself outside a pint or two of the Deschutes Brewery’s excellent Mirrorpond to help get over the long flight. I have also managed to get to the excellent Portland Beer Festival on occasion, Beervana as it is now called apparently, where you can sample good stuff from over 75 microbreweries. There is an excellent beer to be found on the island of Santorini by the way where the Santorini Brewing Company produces Hip Hoppy Kick Ass brews under the Crazy Donkey and Yellow Donkey labels.
You have an unusual life story, growing up in Uganda, can you tell us a little about some of your most poignant and unusual childhood memories of those days?
Well it was an unusual, but very happy childhood I suppose, living in a country for ten years with no electricity at home, nor flushing lavatories, and probably less than 30 miles of tarmac roads in the entire country. I have a strong desire to return, especially since there will be no temptations to visit vineyards as is usually the case when I am travelling.. The first wine that I can recall drinking was a decent white wine from South Africa in fact, the well known brand called La Gratitude which came I think from Stellenbosch Wine Farmers or whatever they might have been called at the time. Funnily enough a year ago I was invited to do a tasting for the Stellenbosch Wine Society whose members are largely drawn from the ranks of past and present wine trade professionals, winemakers, writers etc. and when I said that the first wine I could remember drinking was called La Gratitude, one man in the audience piped up that he had formerly been responsible for making it!
You have travelled the world on your quest to find excellent local wine producers. Which are your favourite anecdotes from those travels?
I do not really know where to begin and it probably merits a book of memoirs one day. The great reward in the wine business is not that of making any money which is singularly difficult, but that of making good friends all over the world and, of course, tasting the fruits of their very considerable labours. Great wines are usually made not by people who are on a mission to make a fortune or even just expand their own egos, but who are driven by a passion to get the very best out of the vineyard that they are responsible for managing. Vineyards and cellars are populated by a large number of great characters, warm and generous personalities who like nothing more than the chance to share their passion with you. My own personal Odyssey has been a never ending succession of wandering over the world’s wine roads, most rewarding usually when off the beaten track rather than on the well worn paths, though I have learnt more from one individual genius in the Bordeaux region than from anyone else, it should probably be said, and I am always indebted to François Mitjavile at Château Le Tertre Rôteboeuf in Saint Emilion for helping me to understand the essential nature of good wine and the things that distinguish a great wine from a merely good one. 38 consecutive vintages of his wines have taught me a great deal, but above all I have valued his company and conversation on a wide range of topics beyond that of wine, through philosophy and politics, art, literature and music. He has helped one to understand the meaning of culture. On the other side of the world, dealing with fresher pastures and the spirit of the true pioneer, I have been fortunate indeed to work with and watch the development of the fledgling Oregon wine industry during almost 40 years, observing the dedicated determination and the stubborn adherence to a firm belief in an authentic sense of a real and unique direction as displayed by David Lett at his Eyrie Vineyards. It has left me with a feeling that a part of my soul rests in Oregon. Great wine is not only a unique expression of a single place, but it is also a subject of great emotion and that is due surely to the extraordinary people who have tasked themselves with the responsibility of realising the real potential of their vineyard sites.
We share your ‘buy local’ philosophy and believe that local advice is best to discover the real character of a country. Have you any particularly memorable experiences which resulted from advice you got from local people?
It is by being physically present in a vineyard area that I will have the best chance of getting tipped off about something particularly interesting. This will sometimes be when a kind grower suggests someone that he thinks would be up my street. Another way can be through a contact in a good local restaurant that is most likely to have the best wines of the region on its own winelist.
As an example, when I asked Daniel Ravier at Domaine Tempier in Bandol if he knew anyone making a wine entirely from the Cinsault grape, he asked me if I was familiar with Mas des Chimères in Languedoc. I made it my business to get in touch with them and we subsequently added their wines to the list. They are exactly the kind of rather quirky, probably inconsistent, very artisanal wines that are somewhat precarious in terms of stability, which a normal supermarket winebuyer would probably avoid like the plague. They also need hand selling by a merchant in whom the customer has a rather strong faith.
When I was on the hunt for a good Grüner Veltliner wine in Austria some 15 years ago, it was my other small Austrian growers who all independently suggested that Bernhard Ott was “Mr.Grüner Veltliner” and the best person to whom I should be talking. We now sell every bottle that he can allocate to us for the UK market.
As for help from a good restaurant, I think that the best lead I ever received was when I found myself at a remote place in the hills of the high Langhe region not far from Barolo in Piedmont. I asked Giuseppe Giardini, the very gracious and helpful proprietor of the admirable Locanda del’Arco in Cissone, if he would recommend a Barbera to me since I did not wish to buy an expensive bottle of Barolo or Barbaresco that evening being on my own. He duly asked me if I was familiar with the wine of one Silvano Bolmida to which I replied that I was not and asked him to waste no time in opening a bottle for me. When he decanted the wine, I was immediately afraid that he had probably misread my taste and that the dark fluid arriving into the decanter would prove to be an over-extracted monster in a style that may be fashionable, but which I rather fervently dislike. However, one sniff of the wine had me hooked and desperate to find out more about the producer. As my next port of call was Turin airport I did not have time to track the man down before leaving the country, so I promised myself that the first thing I would do when getting back to my desk would be to google the guy and send him an email. This I sensibly remembered to do, immediately and to my great surprise receiving a very lengthy response. I returned to Piedmont at the earliest opportunity to find out why his wine was so special and we have developed a relationship that I believe has been mutually most rewarding. We now relieve him of a pretty significant percentage of the wine that he makes from his tiny holding of five very well sited hectares of Barbera and Nebbiolo vines. Only this morning I had an order for 20 magnums of his brilliant Barolo.
Make it happen
If you are interested in travelling to countries that produce some fantastic wine, then get in touch with our local experts in Argentina, Georgia, Chile, South Africa and China. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898
Based in the Cotswold town of Northleach, England, Savage Selection source high quality wines from over 50 producers, typically small family enterprises with whom they develop strong relationships, rather than mass-producing factories. They place great importance on independence, as it is a natural and necessary link with originality, and select growers who share their beliefs in what is essential in producing real, meaningful wines.