“Measured And Forceful”: Bodega Contador Recent Releases (And Whether Or Not A $400 Wine Should Evoke Place)

Vinted on July 26, 2012 binned in kick-ass wines, on the road, wine review

“Lento y fuerte.”

This is how Benjamin Romeo – possibly Rioja’s most celebrated modern winemaker since his 2004 Contador red wine received a 100 point score from The Wine Advocate – described how he speaks.

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
Price: $160
Rating: A-

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
Price: $400
Rating: A-

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
Price: $200
Rating: A

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.






  • binnotes

    …another tough gig, huh? Cheers & break a leg w/ blog awards.

    • 1WineDude

      binnotes – Indeed :). And thanks!

  • Evan Dawson

    Outstanding piece. This is a bit of a departure for you in one regard: This is as direct as I've seen you be concerning wines you clearly don't prefer. You lay out the reasons for the good letter grades for these wines while making clear that they're not your style. And the way you make the case also paints a strong picture of the winemaker and his intentions. Just excellent writing.

    Btw, I don't mean a departure in that you're never critical; it's just that this piece was firmer than I'm accustomed to on 1WD. I almost – almost! – expected you to go Gilman with your scoring! But you have been clear in the past that you disagree with the likes of Gilman; you're comfortable giving high marks to wines you don't care to drink if you think they represent the style well. Do you ever waver on that? Ever tempted to drop a D+ on a finite ballistic missile with no sense of place?

    Thanks for the thorough piece, and the wink-wink warning on whether I want to drop big dollars on these wines in the future…

    • 1WineDude

      Hi Evan – thanks, man. That means a lot to me coming from you (especially since I'm convinced that I will soon be able to call you an award-winning author a few times over before 2012 is done ;-). I'm also just glad that people seem to be able to appreciate that approach to reviewing wine – I mean, Contador for example isn't a bad wine. Contador is a really well-made wine (though I'm not convinced yet that it's as age-able as other critics have suggested), I just don't want to drink it or pay that much for it. But I can see (and have seen) people swoon over it; I probably wouldn't serve those same people a Morgon or a glass of Schloss Leisser, either, but I'm also not going to pretend I'd rather drink Contador than those other wines. I also tried to paint an accurate picture here of Benjamin – albeit in my post-modern, abstract, brushed-pencil strokes kind of way. Anyway, my bromance with you continues with renewed fire after this comment. :) Cheers!

      • Evan Dawson

        Oh, stop. I'm aiming for Susan Lucci territory.

        Gilman argues that his readers would be confused if he gave, say, Pavie 93 points based on sound winemaking and not his own preference. The folks at Spectator take your side, contending that wines deserve high marks if they represent the style well. Gilman is right in that, once you know his palate, you know what a score means without question. The nice thing about 1WD reviews is that your readers might see an A-, but they'll see context and commentary. Essentially, they're seeing, "A-, but…" If it were only the marks, it would be confusing. Even your quick-hitting weekly reviews provide context.

        • 1WineDude

          Thanks, Evan. I suppose I give readers more credit than Gilman does, to put it bluntly. I mean, I read some of this stuff, too, just as an avid consumer, and that approach wouldn't confuse me so long as it's accompanied by context, as you pointed out.

      • Evan Dawson

        I'm not even sure where I fall in this debate. I confess to enjoying Gilman in a pass-the-popcorn kind of way. Also, if the argument says that wines should get high marks if they're well made in a particular style, I'd like to see higher marks for more elegant wines. In other words, critics can say they'll give high marks to wines of all styles if they're well made, but the very highest marks seem to go to the bombastic wines. (This is a general comment about critics that excludes you, for example.)

        • 1WineDude

          Evan – totally appreciate that. In fact, I'd say it was one of the chief frustrations I had about wine media, so it can be at least partially blamed for me getting into wine blogging in the first place. :)

    • 1WineDude

      Oh, as for ever wanting to drop a D+ bomb on wines I don't personally like – never. I can honestly say that I'd never do that. I'd only do it if I strongly felt the wine was inherently flawed and they decided to sell it anyway. I've done this to a couple of VA wines actually, but thankfully I haven't had to go there for almost a year now!

  • fredric koeppel

    But, but, but ….. it's your blog and your palate. Why not give a rating that squares with how you really feel about a wine, as dictated by your taste and sensibility (and frankly your authority as a highly regarded blogger), rather than muddying the waters by finessing the rating to accommodate drinkers who might like a style of wine that you don't? Imagine the indignation that would occur if the restaurant reviewer for The NY Times gave a place a three-star score instead of two stars because people exist who like huge amounts of melted cheese on their food. When personal preference is honed on the wheels of experience and knowledge and integrity, then I think that the honest (yet, yes, personal) judgments that result are more meaningful than any sense of diplomacy or harmony.

    • 1WineDude

      fredric – It's an interesting argument. But my firm belief is that the over-abundance of (probably) mostly subjective ratings is what's muddying the waters. Your restaurant review comparison is actually what's happening now in wine, I think, but not for the reasons you offer in your comment. A plate smothered in cheese is almost certainly going to be out of balance texturally and in terms of flavors, etc. Isn't that what's happened in the promotion of CA Chardonnay, for example, that fits an over-the-top stylistic profile? So I'd rather rate those wines lower, and rate others higher that might at least be very good wines overall even if I personally don't care for them stylistically. Take Pinot Grigio – I shy away from reviewing them sometimes because I don't like PG wines. But I've given some of them quite good ratings and praise, because they strike a nice balance of tropical fruit and minerality without being flabby, etc. If I let the subjective preference play too big a role, then I'm knocking those wines unfairly I think. Anyway – great fodder for discussion and debate! :)

  • Emily Richer

    Awesome to see you on the road in Rioja! Great morning read. I vividly recall tasting a 2002 Benjamin Romeo Contador last summer, kindly offered by my next-door neighbor before it was whisked off to a dinner party. (One nice thing about living surrounded by wine geeks is you receive voice mails like, "Emily, I'm opening an interesting Spanish Tempranillo about 7pm if you'd like to stop over and taste.") Purchased at auction as an "off vintage," that wine instantly defined for me what was an elusive concept I'd heard bandied about by local winemakers–density. "What differentiates density from concentration," I would ask, only to receive, I'm afraid, eye-rolling at my naivete. OK, that helped, thanks so much. But one taste of the Contador and I got it.

    This wine occupies a singular nook in my taste memory catalogue. A tightly-woven, leaded silk which made into a jacket would be impenetrable by wind, yet wearable to dinner in a coat-and-tie sort of place. Maybe you'd say more like a bullet-proof vest :) Maybe not elegant, but from my perspective the flavors were distinctive–earthen, savory–compared to the in-your-face cassis I've experienced more from local (Napa Valley) high flyers. And the finish lingered and haunted. Would I drink this wine with dinner? No, and it's also well out of my price range, but I'm happy to have tasted it.

    Respecting your premium placed on the soul of a place/vineyard vs. the techniques of the man who tends it (and setting aside the intertwined culture/context/history of the two), I was struck with academic curiosity. Did he discuss technique? How DOES one compact so much flavor into 750ml? Viticulture (thinning or dry farming?), or fermentation technique (delestage or such), or barrel influence, etc.?

    • 1WineDude

      Emily – thanks for the great comment ad for sharing that story. GREAT way of putting it, in terms of the wine being dense as opposed to concentrated (though I'd say there was some concentration of fruit in there as well). As for how the wine ended up that way – we didn't really discuss technique details but I think it's safe to assume most (maybe all) of what you cite is part of that picture. Cheers!

  • Emily Richer

    Rock on Joe – have a great trip! As I merge my former consumer/writer self into a vintner, I'm more than ever noticing how much we can say about a wine without discussing how it is made. With experience tasting the region, clearly you see much in these wines that scream "process" over terroir. It's awesome to have earned that perspective through patient, diligent tasting. And of course, some winemakers are remarkably open about how they coax true terroir into your glass (as different varietals/regions surely benefit from differing methods?) or share how they build the flavor/feel they love from anywhere to offer a 'signature style,' and others are far more coy about it–with "we kiss every drop" or "it's gut instinct" responses. In any event, I'm jealous of your Spanish adventure! Thanks for sharing.
    Oh, and re: the timeless debate on objective/subjective rating, I suspect reviewers could provide two "scores:" an "objective" rating of a wine relative to its intentions and as example of its category, alongside their subjective rating such that fans with similar palates could seek out the wines you enjoy drinking. Over time, influential reviewers who nearly create a category would find the two merging. But the idea being 1WD the Reviewer vs. Joe the Consumer :)

    • 1WineDude

      Emily – thanks. Really looking forward to you continuing to chime in here! As for dual ratings – now that I think would *really* confuse people! :). I'll stick to calling it based mostly on overall quality perception, and give the subjective stuff in the text. :) Cheers!

  • Rich Mora

    Hey Joe,
    I was struck by how much Senor Romeo reminds me of Senor Ordonez at least in looks and language. Jorge used to import his wines and I know he likes this style of wine, big, bold and definitely "The Sh*t". You must have had a great time, especially if you are a carnivore.
    Rich Mora, Mora's FIne Wines

    • 1WineDude

      Rich – thanks. I loved the trip. Maybe I didn't totally love that particular stop on it, but the jaunt to Rioja was amazing. Cheers!

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