San Vicente, La Rioja
October 22, 2015
Our first actual visit to a wine producer in Rioja was to Bodega Contador in the village of San Vicente de la Sonsierra on a cool and overcast morning. Everywhere you looked the colors of the vine leaves heading into dormancy illuminated the various shades of gold, yellow, orange and red against the gray backdrop of the mountains and sky. Setting forth from Elciego, we wove our way northwest through and around patchworks of vineyards, surrounding us everywhere we looked.
As we arrived I noticed the winery is unlike many of the grandiose designed Bodega we had seen from the road. Built into a hillside in layers so as to conform to its surroundings, the design is smart, sleek and modern but natural in appearance from the materials down to the color. Inside a combination of traditional and modern is well thought out from start to finish, with each step in production following the next.
When we arrived Rafael greeted us and suggested we go to the vineyards first. We hopped back into the car and made our way out to one of the nearby vineyards that was Tempranillo of about 40 years in age and an adjacent young Malvasia vineyard that was, to my surprise, still green and full of vineyard growth. Young vines like these are fastidious and leaves change color very late; they also don’t produce the best quality of grapes for several years. Similar to young humans, juvenile vines have a lot of energy. Wisdom and experience gained over the years add character and depth to humans, just as time does to the grape vine.
Rafael was explaining the site and the different Contador plots both nearby and far off in the Cantabrian foothills. Certain qualities must exist such as slope, aspect, and the right soil to be a vineyard they would own. The soil in this specific plot was a brownish-gray clay with pebbles and only a few meters deep (1-3) with mother rock limestone as the core bedrock below the clay. The clay was fluffy like a chocolate mousse as footprints left a deep imprint. (Note to others and self: get boots from now on for these visits as it is necessary to get into the vineyards without mucking up your dress shoes.)
We then took a ride over to the other side of San Vicente to another vineyard with vines 65-75 years of age. The vineyard sloped perfectly south/southeast in a gentle but obvious slope towards the Ebro river far below the plateau the vineyard was on. The top soil was a reddish-brown clay with a high concentration of round stones; a side cutaway near the road revealed the calcareous limestone bedrock that lay under the clay and stone topsoil. Nearby Rafael pointed out adjacent vineyards for a new project from Vega-Sicilia and Benjamin Rothschild (Lafite), arguably the most famous wine producers in Spain and Bordeaux respectively. The vines in this site were in a unique spot under the village were the church tower of the village loomed over us like a guardian keeping watch. Ironically that was our next stop.
The village is home for Benjamin and he uses it as inspiration for a few of the wine labels. The church tower is the most prominent of them and is depicted on the La Cueva de Contador label. The 2 church bells on an adjacent chapel are on the Contador label, Benjamin’s top wine and one of the great icon wines of Spain.
The word Cueva, if you have not already figured it out, translates to cave. These Cueva were in many cases constructed and used by families for centuries to make and age their own personal wine. Cueva is not unique to this village as most villages in Rioja and Ribera del Duero have them. Rafael opened the door to one and we made our way in, it had the same feel, but smaller than the caves we visited at Aguila. After a quick photo or two out on the scenic ramp that juts out like a rusted arm over the hills of San Vicente, we made our way back to Contador for the tour of the facilities.
Pretty typical as far as the basics go, but looks can be deceiving as there was a lot of thought and money put into to flow and design of the process. Everything flowed from one step to the next, with the next step in winemaking taking place in an adjacent room. Full sized oak fermentation tanks were a great first sign. A few smaller and different shaped vessels also were in the room customized for different plots. Elevators were installed, not just for people, but also barrels and tanks. There is an actual malolactic fermentation room and then separately a large and dimly lit barrel room for aging the wines in barrel.
From time to time you see that Benjamin is a big fan of Clint Eastwood. Predicador means preacher and the hat on the label of the Predicador wine is but one of the few nods to Clint Eastwood we would see that day. The preacher Mr. Eastwood played in the movie Pale Rider wore that same hat. It’s hard not think of Benjamin’s maverick style and intense passion for making wine and how it resembles the gritty and passionate characters that Clint portrayed on the silver screen.
For the finale, we headed to the wine bar Contador operates in San Vicente to have a fabulous multi-course lunch and taste the range of wines.
The first two wines were the Predicador Blanco followed by the Cacarabea Blanco. The Predicador white (45% Viura, 39% Garnacha Blanca, 16% Malvasia) to me is a very consistent wine each time I have it. It performs above most Reserva white wines and is Contador’s entry level white. Predicador is more vertical in texture from start to finish from the predominance of Viura and aging in mostly used French oak barrels (70%, 30% new). The Cacarabea (52% Garnacha Blanca, 35% Viura, and 13% Malvasia) expands into the finish from the Garnacha Blanco and 8 months aging in new French oak. The finish cuts it dry and clean with a splash of fresh acidity. The traditional regional white asparagus was a superb pairing with these wines and one of the better versions of the dish we had.
The next two wines were the Predicador red and, a favorite of mine, La Cueva de Contador – the ONLY red wines made in 2013 by Contador. 2013 was a challenging year with rain, cool temperatures, little sun and systemic rot and mold. The best grapes that are normally reserved for Contador, Carmen and Andres, were instead used to make classy and very good versions of their entry-level and second wine. Predicador 2013 red is 96% Tempranillo, with the rest Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo aged 16 months in used 1-year French oak barrels. La Cueva truly is a baby Contador in 2013 and worth seeking out if you can find it. Aged 18 months in 100% new French oak, the 2013 La Cueva is 100% Tempranillo. Tasted twice, the wine was superb with depth, structure and freshness not seen in many 2013 and not since 2010 in these wines. With this flight, we had a charcuterie plate loaded with regional specialties; the dark and oval shaped sausage charcuterie was the best and a great counter to these firm, spicy, and tannins youngsters.
The next wine was the La Vina de Andrea which is easily his most modern in style and most accessible in its youth. Loaded with sweet fruit and tannin, it sports a boisterous, fruit-forward personality. This will especially appeal to many that love new world wines. Aged for 19 months in all new French oak, the Andres Romero is 100% Tempranillo from a single vineyard in San Vicente (“La Liende”). We had this with the traditional roasted baby lamb, which was superb and the second best version we had. If you ever come to Rioja or the surrounding Castillon regions you must try the lamb which goes by Cordero Lechal, it is tender, juicy, mildly seasoned and crispy in some parts. Lechal is even protected by the EU with an IGP certification.
The next wine was the flagship, the Contador 2012. I had read a lot about this wine as I had not yet tasted it for myself and was looking forward to finally trying it. The hype and adoration for this wine is justifiably deserved. The words that came to mind were power with precision, depth of aroma, flavor and energy. Still too young to fully enjoy, it did have all the makings of a great wine that will easily age 30 years or more. The grapes for Contador 2012 were sourced from 8 vineyards in San Vicente and Abalos, composed of 92% Tempranillo, 4% each Graciano and Mazuelo. The vines are all bush vine and the grapes were completely destemmed. Fermentation takes place in oak vats and then the wines are aged for 19 months in all new French oak. About 500 cases were produced, so there is not much of this to go around.
The last wine in the group, Carmen, is the one wine you would most recognize as similar to the wines made by the big boys in Haro like La Rioja Alta or CVNE Imperial. An homage to his mother Carmen, this is the most traditionally made wine by Benjamin and one of my favorites. Powerful and complex, with an excellent structure and depth of complexity from the aging process as this is the current release. Carmen is composed of 80% Tempranillo, 15% Garnacha and 5% Graciano from old bush vines in 3 San Vicente vineyards. Fully destemmed, the wines are fermented in oak vats and aged for 24 months in 2 and 3-year-old used French barrels. To then qualify for Gran Reserva it is held back another 36 months in bottle.
One of the better tastings of the week, the wines were showing really well as some of the reds had been open for several hours, some from the day before. I was expecting brute force, but while they were powerful, there was a precision and freshness in many of them. The whites especially showed a lot of purity and not much of the oak that they are raised in with good levels of acidity. Whatever your opinion on the style, there is no denying the ultra-high quality level at which these wines are made. Keep a look out for a Cosecha from 2015, something new that Contador has not done before.