Benjamin Romeo is very ambitious for his wines, determined to produce the very best his land can provide. Rioja based, his wines stand apart from mainstream Rioja in every way possible. A painstaking selection of over twenty plots presents Benjamin with a complex set of ingredients for his blend. The vineyards, some ten hectares, excluding Predicador, include a contiguous 3.5ha block, planted with bush vines, which produces La Viña de Andres. The rest of the estate is dotted in numerous parcels around San Vicente de la Sonsierra (around 80%) and neighbouring Labastida and Briones. These vines are responsible for Benjamin Romeo Contador, the flagship wine, and its little brother La Cueva del Contador. Benjamin Romeo is passionate about his terroir, “my vineyards are in a very privileged part of the world – La Rioja is wonderful, privileged land for making wines.”
Brought up amongst vines, Benjamin Romeo studied in Madrid before embarking on fifteen years with the highly-renowned estate Artadi. Benjamin has ambition however and he wanted to see his name emblazoned across a label. Benjamin knew that such a label would bear witness to the exacting standards he would enforce. Benjamin is passionate about his native Rioja but he rails against the complacency and standardisation which has become accepted as the norm. He was determined to be different in every aspect of his wines, from how they are made to how they are marketed. So what if the market was happy with consistent but average, he was going to celebrate diversity and in spades – different soils, aspects, ages of vines, altitudes and attitude.
Benjamin Romeo had had a three point plan.
He would concentrate on the all important vineyards, both tending existing parcels and increasingly acquiring new ones. Typical of Benjamin, he sought out parcels of low-yielding ancient vines in the most cumbersome spots, and difficult to work.
His second challenge would be to make the wines and witness how the world received them.
The third goal would have to be long term, namely building a custom-built, state of the art winery – which would in turn begin a new era whereby larger volumes could be considered.
Benjamin Romeo – the vineyards and the wines
The 3.5ha block of La Viña de Andresis planted at 3,000 vines per hectare on alluvium and chalk. The vines for the flagship wine Benjamin Romeo Contador are planted at 3,500 vines per hectare on a mix of clay-limestone, alluvial and poor, thin soils. These soils get the best out of the vines by making them work harder to obtain nutrients, intensifying the minerality of the finished wines. La Cueva del Contador, nominally the second wine of Contador, is a great wine in its own right. The vines have more space, with 2,900 vines per hectare on clay-limestone and alluvial soil. In years when Benjamin Romeo elects not to make Contador – the wine has to be absolutely exceptional or it is not made – Cueva will also contain declassified Contador.
Since the winery has now been built, Benjamin can achieve his third objective with a fourth wine, Predicador, which is produced in larger volumes. For this twenty hectares of vines from a mixture of different soils, have been planted at 2,800 vines per hectare.
A white wine Que Bonita Cacareabais from parcels of Viura, Garnacha Blanca and Malvasía scattered over the estate.
The estate's vineyards are extraordinary, at first glance unkempt yet meticulously controlled by Benjamin. These are bush vines with extremely uneven dreadlocks, severely pruned to maximise diversity of exposure. Benjamin is a passionate exponent of bush vines, once again because this adds to diversity. Vines trained on wires are an anathema to him. “What else can they do but produce linear wines?” he retorts. Certainly the vines are healthy and at one with the world, sitting happily amongst wild fennel, rosemary, thyme and lavender, which all make an impact in the finished wines
Essentially Benjamin exercises biodynamic disciplines but, true to form, he remains a card-carrying ' Benjaministe ' – and he will not commit to any imposed dogma – even if he elects to follow the rules. Much of the work in both vineyard and cellar, for example, follow an uncannily similar calendar to that of the waxing and waning moon.
Benjamin’s wines encapsulate the essence of the vineyards in which he works, begging the question why other, neighbouring vineyards do not come close to producing the same intensity and complexity. We do recognise, of course, that there are economic and commercial constraints and that we have a need for more commercial styles, but there is no resemblance between these wines and those of high production enterprises.
Benjamin Romeo – winemaking philosophy
Having secured the vineyards and not yet achieved the winery, step two required a great deal of imagination and effort for the wines to be made at all. In fact, for the first five years the wine was made in a garage in the centre of town. During the harvest, parcel by parcel, the grapes from the individual plots would be brought into town as they attained optimum ripeness and then, for ageing purposes, the barrels were strapped onto the back of a pickup and driven up a precipitous winding road to the top of the hill, beneath the church. Benjamin Romeo cannot be accused of making life easy for himself.
The painstaking selection of a myriad of tiny parcels presents Benjamin with a complex jigsaw, the elements of the final blend. Each terroiradds subtle nuances borne of altitude, aspect, age of vines and soils.
Once in the cellar Benjamin always de-stems, but he ferments whole grapes without pressing so that there is a mix of carbonic and normal alcoholic fermentation, the CO2 generated acting as a preservative so less sulphur is required.
With twenty-six vintages under his belt, Benjamin continues to experiment with cold maceration, barrel sizes, coppers and fermentation controls.
Again there are no hard and fast rules. Benjamin Romeo will, “do only those things that come from my soul, with meticulous care at each and every stage. It means I have my own style of wines, my stamp on them that people can recognise and, I hope, enjoy: wines are to be enjoyed and my role is to maximize their enjoyment”.
Finally, the new winery is one of the most stunning, original and sympathetic modern constructions we have ever seen. Set into an escarpment on three levels, the exquisite attention to detail reveals itself piecemeal. As one would expect, Benjamin has installed all the usual suspects – gravitational movement, temperature control et al . – but the choice of natural materials exudes supreme quality.
Church of Santa Maria la Mayor, looking down onto the Benjamin Romeo winery