Over the last few years we’ve been working with Johnny Hartwright, who is based in Barcelona and has a passion for sniffing out consignments of old vintage Rioja. The wines have typically been cellared in the same place ever since they were released and sold, and have aged into elegant, ethereal wines which match beautifully with food.
I caught up with Johnny recently to find out more about his vinous treasure hunts and why he thinks Rioja wines age so well.
When did you realise there was a market for these wines?
“Since moving to Spain I had tried and enjoyed mature wines from Rioja. Someone tipped me off about a huge collection of over 100,000 bottles which had been stored in a basement car-park – near perfect cellaring conditions! I sold the whole lot – seven lorry loads, the largest single parcel of old wines sold – to a UK indy wine retailer. Seeing the demand was there I saw the potential, and started to look for other stashes!”
Johnny never buys large collections of wines without first checking out the storage conditions and tasting some of the bottles. Spain can get hot and unfortunately some wines have not been well stored. He was understandably tight-lipped about how he sources the wines, many of which have been stored in their original cellars since release, however he has some unusual anecdotes about their discoveries which he’ll share with us when he comes over.
What is behind these Rioja’s longevity and ageing ability?
“There are two factors, grapes were picked earlier and at lower sugar levels in the 70s and 80s – the pH of the juice produced is lower and the acidity of the wines was higher which gives them freshness and good aging potential. Secondly it was common in the 70s to keep Crianza wines in barrel for at least two years, the requirement is a year, the Reseva and Gran Reserva wines were often kept in barrique for much longer. This longer aging in wood is only practiced today by a few producers such as Lopez de Heredia, it helps to stabilise the wine as well as concentrating the aromas and flavours giving them the concentration for a long life.”
This tradition for oak aging was born in the late 19th century when Bordeaux producers, fleeing from the twin plagues of mildew and phylloxera brought their barriques over the Pyranees to Rioja. This is when many of the grand old bodegas such as La Rioja Alta, CVNE, López de Heredia, Muga, Marqués de Murrieta and Marqués de Riscal were founded.
And what of Riojas today will they go the distance like the examples from the early 20th century?
“I’m not sure, wines today are often picked riper and therefore have lower acidity. There is also a shift away from long oak aging as consumers seem to prefer more fruit driven styles. I don’t think modern day wines will go the same distance as those produced in the 70s, 80s and early 90s, I guess only time will tell.”
So it seems we should enjoy these graceful old Riojas while we can.
We’ll be opening a selection at a tasting at The Larder on Wednesday 18th October – if you’d like to join us for a glimpse into Rioja’s history or would like a list of the wines we have available contact us.