The Wines of Benjamin Romeo
San Vicente, Rioja
Our first actual visit to a wine producer in Rioja was to Bodega Contador in the village of San Vicente 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 grey backdrop of the mountains and sky. Setting forth from Elciego we weaved our way north-west through and around patchworks of vineyards that surrounded us everywhere we looked.
As we arrived I noticed the winery is unlike many of the grandiose designed Bodega we had seen up to this point 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 were 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. Very young vines like these are very fastidious and the 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 and more to say, albeit it is usually of less significance. Wisdom and experience gained over the years add character and depth to humans, just as time does to the grapevine.
Rafael was explaining the site and the different plots nearby and far off in the Cantabrian foothills that Contador have and how 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 an imprint 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 with 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 topsoil was a red 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 where the church tower of the village loomed over us like a guardian keeping watch.
Looking up at the village of San Vicente from the west. The prominent church tower is La Cueva de Contador and is featured on the label for the wine of the same name.
The vineyard soils and stone in San Vicente, west of the village.
The next logical place to go was up there to the village to see the different aspects of this village that Benjamin calls home and uses as inspiration for some of the wine labels. The church tower is the most prominent of them and is depicted on the La Cueva de Contador label. The 3 church bells on an adjacent building are on the Contador label, Benjamin’s top wine and one of Spain finest.
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 in these ancient villages. So 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.
This rustic and old chapel was the inspiration for the label for Benjamin Romeo’s top wine “Contador”.
La Cueva, or the cave, here is where wine was made centuries ago in these caves. Romeo is bringing back that tradition here in San Vicente by making wine in these small, concrete and stone caves.
Pretty typical as far as the basics go, there was, however, 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 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 top quality French oak barrique.
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 just 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 to think of Benjamin’s maverick style and intense passion for making wine and how it resembles the gritty 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 to me is a very consistent wine each time I have it and performs above most Reserva white wines and is Contador’s entry-level white. More vertical in texture from start to finish from the Viura. The Cacarabea expands into the finish from the Garnacha Blanco then cuts it dry and clean with a splash of fresh acidity. Paired with these wines, the traditional regional white asparagus was a superb pairing 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 and 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. La Cueva truly is a baby Contador in 2013 and worth seeking out if you can find it. 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 sauscion 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 the wine most accessible in its youth that carries the depth of the premium wines. Loaded with fruit and a slick personality, this will especially appeal to many that love new world wines. 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 roasted lamb, which is tender, juicy, mildly seasoned and crispy in some parts.z
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, however, had all the makings of a great wine that will easily age 30 years and maybe give pleasure for even more. See my notes below for more details.
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 in his line up of wines 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.
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. The wines overall 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 at. Keep a lookout for a Cosecha from 2015, something new that Contador has not done before.
Predicador Blanco 2014
Excellent body and freshness, sweet lemon citrus, fresh acidity, barely a trace of oak, the wine fills the palate with flavor without much weight.
54% viura, 30 Malvasia, rest grenacha Blanco for 8 months in used oak, 20k bottles of production
Cacareaba Blanco 2014
More depth and power, some minerality and plenty of purity. Though it comes across a little tight, it is more complex than the Predicador Blanco.
70% Garnacha Blanco, 20% Malvasia, 10% Viura with 8 months in new oak.
Predicador 2013 red
Medium bodied and good freshness, crushed fresh red and black fruit with good persistence and good structure. Predicador spends only 3-4 months in bottle before release. 90k bottles of production which is more than usual in 2013 because they used most of of the production because of poor vintage conditions and did not make anything above the Cueva wine.
96% Tempranillo, 2% grenacha, 1% each Mazuelo & Gracias, 12 mos used oak barrel aging
La Cueva del Contador 2013
Full-bodied and tannic. Classic flavor and intensity, awesome in all ways and just a baby. Densely packed with a complex aroma set, the coaxing from the glass reveals a very typical Contador/Cueva character, though it is for sure a few shades below Contador. The decision to bottle only Cueva was a very good one as the wine is terrific and is likely a success from sacrificing the Contador bottling. This is the highest level of premium wine of the traditional reds in 2013, no Contador.
La Vina de Andres Romeo 2012
Brambly and ripe, round soft and a fruit forward wine. Hugely fruited and deeply flavored, this is a wine that is very different from the other wines in the entire portfolio. The wine is as smooth as silk, but lacks to me some energy, finesse and structure that I prefer.
Powerful, insane precision, telescopic layers of flavor and nuance, with a crazy long finish. So young, this is intensely complex, with great acidity and balance. Firm, full grain tannins that are ripe and long with the oak exceptionally integrated. Well structured and fresh this will easily age 25-30 years easy. Very good now, the potential is off the charts so check back in 5!
Carmen Gran Reserva 2007
Powerful and complex, excellent structure and depth from the aging process as this is the current release. An homage to his mother Carmen, this is the most traditionally made wine by Benjamin in his line up of wines and one of my favorites. This speaks of purity and power, with structure and some elegance as nothing overwhelms but instead is very precise.