“Lento y fuerte.”
Measured and forceful.
Which, it turns out, is a perfect descriptor for most of Romeo’s wines, as well as for his general approach to life.
To wit: when I met him at the delivery area of his state-of-the-art winery in San Vicente de la Sonsierra, Bodega Contador, there was very little in the way of introduction, and literally nothing in the way of ascertaining what my group wanted to get out of our visit.
“Mira, mira,” he said, “es el plan,” while then launching into a description of what we’d be doing that day together. We would be touring his vineyards, hilltop church bell tower cellar, then back to the winery. Romeo even dictated when and where we’d be taking photos during the tour.
My Spanish isn’t great, but I garnered three things about Benjamin Romeo during our meeting: he curses (a lot – for example, roughly translated on the 2010 vintage: “2010 is f*cking incredible… it’s the bomb… the sh*t!… they’re very thick…”); he is fiercely proud of his wines (to the point where he seems to have trouble understanding why anyone wouldn’t like them); and he packs those wines with so much bombastic, hedonistic flavor that they’re just about bottled reflections of the man himself and are almost guaranteed to be… divisive…
Benjamin Romeo’s are wines that are not so much fruit bombs as they are fruit megaton explosions; they are the kind of wines that get Wine Advocate subscribers swooning, and are like high octane lighter fluid on the fire for those who have come to loathe the over-the-top, highly extracted, full-bodied wines generally favored by that publications reviewers.
Fame and high scores have clearly been kind to Romeo. His new winemaking facility is a meticulous, no-expense-spared showcase, more secure than a bank vault, and a far cry from the garage in which he vinified his first Contador vintages.
Romeo started up Contador in the late 1990s, with four barrels of red wine and two of white, moving from his father’s garage to the caves under the hilltop church tower (its image now adorns the Contador label, while the caves now age what Romeo titled “Carmen”: a more traditional style Gran Reserva made in tiny quantities named after his mother, and by far his best wine… more on that in a minute or two…).
Things have changed dramatically since then, and Romeo is viewed as the hometown boy who made good in the wine biz. He needed to expand, and the answer was a larger – and substantially more modern – winemaking facility, which he had built in 2007. The biggest change, however (or at least the biggest challenge) might be battling Contador’s skyrocketing prices (a function of small production + high scores), a state of affairs which Romeo attacked with verve when we tasted through his most recent releases.
“I don’t like seeing my wines for $800 a bottle in New York City restaurants. I know what the market will do because my wines received high scores,” he told us (via a translator). “I cannot control it. I want to make wines not for millionaires, but for normal people. The market takes advantage of it. Everybody’s a son of a bitch, looking out for themselves and trying to make money!” (at this point he was pounding the table, though at the same time giving me a knowing wink).
To that end, Romeo has released both red and white everyday wines, under the label Predicador (“preacher,” an homage to Clint Eastwood’s “everyman” role Pale Rider). The white, a blend of Grenache Blanc (some from 100 year old vines), Malvasía and Viura is the more interesting of the two, with an abundance of tropical fruits, lemon and touches of white flowers and honey. The Predicador red is peppery, and silky, its intense red-and-blue berry fruit reminiscent of Beaujolais; sort of like Moulin-A-Vent meets Godzilla, or Morgon as a Mech Warrior. Both red and white, for the 2010 vintage, are around $20, or roughly five percent what the same vintage of Contador will run you right now.
Romeo’s 2011 ‘A mi manera’, another release in the $20 range, shows that he is perfectly capable of applying a lighter touch and a deft winemaking hand: it’s as bright and fun as Tempranillo gets, with notes of fresh cherries, tea and pepper. But prices for Romeo’s more popular, heavier-handed wines remain thoroughly out of control; the 2010 La Cueva del Contador, a sort of “second wine” to Contador, will set you back over $100. While that Tempranillo-based wine has got a good amount of character in its violet, pepper and blueberry aromas, it’s a good example of why Romeo’s bigger wines can be divisive: thick, chock full of sweet oak and packing such lush blackberry that it tastes as though it could be Syrah, and have come from anywhere, rather than evoking anything quintessentially Rioja.
With prices out of the range of most of the 99 percenters, it’s the S.O.B.s that seem to be winning the market battle, at least for now. I myself probably ended up somewhere in the S.O.B. category for Romeo during the time I spent at Contador: my group (all bloggers) clearly made him a bit nervous; particularly, I suspect, because we all weren’t fans of the stylistic choice behind some of his most expensive wines.
It felt like a minor (though relatively good-natured) stand-off to me, though nowhere near the levels of tension generated by the stand-off between Spain and rival Portugal in the semis of the 2012 EuroCup played that same week. Besides, I hardly think our opinions of his wines will come anywhere close to breaking even a small percentage of his bank.
But at one point, Romero remarked about his short temper and then pointing at my notebook told me, I think only half-jokingly “Te ves peligroso…. ¿Qué está escribiendo ahí?” (“You look dangerous… what are you writing there?!?”).
Well, let me tell you all what I was writing there… tasting notes…
2010 La Vina de Andres Romeo
Romeo sources this Tempranillo blend from a four hectare single-vineyard site, and it sees some carbonic winemaking action which expresses itself in a bright, sweet, almost candied blue and black fruit nose. Plums and violets are peeking out, too, along with pepper, herbs and oak spices. As buoyant as things are on the nose, they get decidedly more weighty on the palate, with cola, blackberry, plum and a hot, port-like sweetness and bite. This wine is decidedly not my kind of record, duuuude… but I felt compelled to mention it, because there’s absolutely no denying that it’s well-made (it just happens to be well-made with total hedonists in mind).
2010 Benjamin Romeo Contador
No way after that setup was I going to get away with not publishing my tasting notes of Romeos flagship wine, right?
Beautifully opaque, tight as a drum to start, eventually opening up with plums, blackberries, chocolate and oak spices, the first thing anyone will likely notice about Contador is that it has the density of a neutron star. On the palate, this wine is huge, dusty, dark; black cherry, violets, currants and menthol all make appearances, and the whole package projects more and more alcoholic heat as it warms up in the glass. It’s not that Contador is without any brightness, and there’s certainly complexity in its fruit and tannic structure, but the wine is soooo fruity and dense that it doesn’t really represent place – or even Tempranillo, apart from the ta leaf, tobacco and dark cherry that mark the smoky finish – as much as it does excellent, ripe fruit and style. This is modern Tempranillo, and in near concentrate form. While its name harkens back to the history of a particular place (that bell tower, in which many decades ago an accountant would note any incoming/outgoing wine from the previous owner’s family stash), for better or worse Contador itself does not. And in my view, that’s for worse, because once a wine hit’s this price point, I don’t want it to taste like it could have come from anywhere with great fruit and a great winemaker. I want it to have more soul than that.
The Contador left me wondering if it would age gracefully (though in its defense, some tart red fruits are evident after several minutes in the glass), and I’m fairly confident it won’t reach anywhere near the potential that TWA predicted for it. Fans of the big will enjoy Contador, but it’s tough to justify the price tag in my view. So a mention, and a rating certainly, but no badge for this one.
2007 Benjamin Romeo Carmen
Cola, spiced plum, chocolate, licorice, tobacco, tea leaf, leather – the Carmen has Gran Reserva written all over its nose. The palate is almost rustic with its dusty tannins, dark cherries, tart red plums and savory notes. Now this wine I could understand garnering crazy high scores and ridiculous prices, and it’s as close to old school Rioja as I think we’re likely to see from Romeo. From its earthy start to its tea-and-pepper finish, it’s clear that while Carmen’s dress might be all modern glitz, her roots are plainly and purely in Tempranillo, and Tempranillo from Rioja at that. It’s the wine that is now being aged in the belltower caves that once housed Contador, and in that way Carmen seems to be Romero’s new labor of love, and the truest expression of his art.