Benjamín Romeo is one of Rioja's leading iconoclasts. He worked for Artadi in the 1990s where he led the winemaking revolution that swept the region. After that period, he started to buy small vineyards and launched his own project in an ancient cave under the clocktower of San Vicente de la Sonsierra. It is therefore unsurprising that his first wine (1996 vintage) was named La Cueva del Contador. The word Contador (counter, in English) refers to the first room in the old production caves found across Rioja villages where wine skins were counted. The 1999 vintage was the first for red Contador, which costs around €250 and has an average production of less than 6,000 bottles.
Romeo left Artadi in 2000 to focus exclusively on his own project. During a few years, he worked from his parents' garage but the success of his wines -including the 100 points given by The Wine Advocate to the 2004 and 2005 vintages of Contador- soon allowed him to build a large winery at the foothills of San Vicente de la Sonsierra.
Beyond the perfect integration of the winery in the landscape and the use of a natural slope to install gravity-led production methods, Contador has two differentiating elements. The first is its wine bar La III Estación, which in 2013 held some very impressive tastings with leading Rioja wineries. The second is its tourist offer, which ranges from balloon trips and country picnics to vineyard tours and visits to the original Cueva (cave).
From its early days, the range of Contador wines has expanded considerably to include more accessibly-priced references. A mi manera is an entry-level carbonic maceration style (€12, 25,000 bottles); next up is Predicador (around €19) which includes a white (around 14,000 bottles) and a red wine (around 90,000 bottles). The white is unctuous with marked citric and saline nuances in the last vintages. The red is capable of showing particularly vibrant fruit notes in cool vintages. Romeo also makes tiny amounts of Que Bonito Cacareaba, a premium white (€36, under 6,000 bottles) with a rather peculiar name (in English, What Pretty Clucking). The wine was originally called Gallocanta but it had to be changed when it went on sale in the American market after the opposition of US giant Gallo. Full-bodied and high in alcohol on the attack, it is an extreme wine but it seems to have gained elegance in the latest vintages. It is an interesting blend of Garnacha Blanca (50%) and Malvasía (35%) with Viura playing a secondary role (15%).
La Viña de Andrés Romeo (around €90, 4,000 bottles) is the only premium red which comes from a single vineyard. The plot is called La Liende and lies on a meander of the Ebro river with alluvial soils and pebbles. Made from Tempranillo, it has a distinct personality. La Cueva del Contador (€57, around 10,000 bottles) is a taster of what might be expected from the premium style of the house with the least possible damage to drinkers' pockets. Both this reference and Contador come from vineyards in San Vicente and in nearby Ábalos and Labastida. Production style may change from one year to the next. Nevertheless, La Cueva remains a single varietal Tempranillo whereas the percentages of secondary varieties such as Graciano, Mazuelo and Garnacha may vary in Contador from one vintage to the next.
The winery's website publishes some of the most thorough and extensive technical sheets found among Spanish wines and include details such as the exact origin of the grapes and fermentation graphics of all the vats that went to produce each wine.
Benjamín Romeo is also involved in Vins del Massis, a project to produce white wines in Sierra del Garraf in Catalonia.