One of the driving forces behind modernisation in Rioja, Benjamín Romeo is a real character among Spain’s top producers and a no-nonsense country man with little time for formalities. Easy to recognize with his ever-present cap, Romeo is a stickler for detail when it comes to the stages of wine production —from the vineyards to the design of the labels.
Winemaker at Artadi until 2000, Romeo launched his own project with La Cueva del Contador 1996. A true garage wine, it was made in one of the caves of the ancient bodega district beneath the clock tower of San Vicente de la Sonsierra’s castle in Rioja Alta. It was here were wine used to be stored, counted (hence the name Contador for the winery and some of the wines) and sold.
Three years later, in 1999, Romeo made the first vintage of Contador. It is his top wine to this day and the one which launched him to stardom after the 2004 and 2005 vintages scored 100 points in Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate.
Benjamín Romeo owns 50Ha of vineyards spread across 60 different plots, most of which are bush vines. He works with organic compost and leaves shredded vine shoots on the soil. Selection, both on the vineyard and the winery, is essential to Romeo’s way of working. He uses 10,000-litre wooden vats and malolactic fermentations are mostly done in barrels; aging times for red wines range from 16 to 18 months and he takes moon cycles into account when it comes to handling wines.
Contador wines include the young red A Mi Manera (literally “My Way”, around €16 in Spain, 10,000 bottles) the white (€24, 11.000 bottles) and red versions of Predicador (€24, 130,000 bottles), the fine barrel-fermented white Qué Bonito Cacareaba (in English, What Pretty Clucking, 7,000 bottles, €52), a blend of Garnacha Blanca (50%), Viura and Malvasía with good evolution in the bottle. Romeo’s red range include his two initial reds: La Cueva del Contador (around €790 in Spain, 11,000 bottles) is a 100% Tempranillo sourced from over 10 different vineyards and Contador (around 6,000 bottles, €320), which blends Tempranillo with the best grapes from each vintage.
In 2016 Romeo released a collection emulating a luxury club concept: a limited edition of 500 wood cases featuring four single-vineyard red wines. Each box contained 24 bottles (six bottles of each wine) and was sold for €3,000. The wines included La Liende, a 100% Tempranillo sourced from a plot planted in 1985 by Romeo’s father in the lower area of the village, close to the Ebro River at around 450 metres, on alluvial soils with plenty of gravel. The wine used to be labelled as La Viña de Andrés Romeo, but the brand was discontinued. This was also the case for Carmen Gran Reserva, a field blend of Tempranillo, Graciano, Garnacha and Mazuelo that was renamed La Canoca after the 50-year-old plot it is sourced from. Tempranillo grapes for El Bombón were sourced from a plot found at 580m high with distinctive clay soils and combining chocolate-like aromas with citrus acidity. The intriguing La Dehesa Garnacha came from Romeo’s oldest and highest vineyard, planted ungrafted in 1900 at 750m above sea level on sandstone soils.
Many of these grapes are currently destined to the new red release Alma de Contador (120 €, 10,000 bottles), which is exclusively sold through Place de Bordeaux. In fact the wine is a blend of La Liende, El Bombón and Diasol and it has been aged in new French oak barrels for 20 months.
Contador welcomes wine lovers with a varied array of tours ranging from a tour of the winery plus a tasting of two wines to a full-day tour with extra activities like a ballon ride, trekking to ancient stone presses or a picnic among vines plus the chance to taste the whole range of wines. Another option is to drop by at La III Estación, Benjamín Romeo’s wine bar in San Vicente, where you can try a rosé made exclusively to be served here and where is not rare to spot Benjamín himself.