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Rioja Gems Part IV: Contrasting Modernists

2012 August 9

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Benjamin Romeo amidst Tempranillo vines his father planted, San Vicente looming in the background

While I’m hugely attracted to Rioja’s traditional style wines, especially from longtime producers like Bodegas Franco-Espanolas and La Rioja Alta S.A., there are also many very appealing modern style wines being made there these days.

One of the most successful to date—in terms of Parker ratings, and the resulting prices the wines now fetch—has been Benjamin Romeo. His flagship Contador wine, first made by his now ex-wife in 2000, received 100 points from Parker for the 2004 and 2005 vintage, and current releases now retail for well over $300, if you can find them. (Prior to launching his own label, Romeo had risen to fame as the winemaker for Artadi from 1985 to 2000, helping them achieve high Parker scores for very modern style wines.)

A lesser known, but increasingly successful small producer, whose wines are aged traditionally but that have a very modern feel to them, is Miguel Merino. His wines are now being direct imported to the U.S. by K&L Wines and they represent terrific values for very flavorful, ageworthy, modern Rioja.

Visiting these two producers over the space of two days on my recent trip to Rioja revealed even greater contrasts between two modern style producers from the same region than their relative profile and price points.

For one thing, Bodegas Benjamin Romeo—a very modern, high security, fort-like facility that was completed in 2007, has to be the most forbidding and least welcoming winery I’ve ever visited.

The only way in is through the loading dock, and when my group of wine bloggers was deposited there by our bus driver, no one welcomed us or even acknowledged our existence for the first 15 minutes or so. There is no obvious entrance, and every opening requires a key. Since a couple of us needed to use a restroom, we asked the few people talking to each other outside for “el baño” and a gentleman inserted his key in the elevator door and pointed downward. I introduced myself to a stylishly dressed blond who looked like she might be the winery publicist, but who had ignored us since we arrived. She did indicate she knew we were there to see Benjamin. Ultimately, it turned out she was Benjamin’s longtime friend who was going to act as our translator for at least the first part of our visit.

Although she was married to an American and was currently living in the States, our temporary translator’s English seemed at least as marginal as my Spanish. Finally Benjamin acknowledged we were there and indicated we were first going to go with him to tour some vineyards. We piled into his SUV to head to the first vineyard. He proceeded to spend a good part of the time while driving us, and during the rest of the tour, carrying on conversations on his cellphone.

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Romeo on his cell phone

The first vineyard we stopped at consisted of older white grape vines planted on a slope just above the Ebro River. After we extricated ourselves from the tight confines of the back seats, Benjamin opened a tin of white asparagus for us, and poured us one of his white wines, the Predicador Blanco. It did go pretty well with the asparagus. We walked around the vineyard listening to him while tasting the wine. He then drove us on to a Tempranillo vineyard that his father had planted in the 1980s and from which he now makes the wine honoring his father, La Viña de Andres Romeo. This vineyard includes some of the Tempranillo Peludo—low yielding “hairy Tempranillo” vines–that I wrote about in my last post.

After letting us take our pictures of the beautiful old hilltop town of San Vicente from there (he had refused to stop the car for us to take them earlier) we squeezed back into his vehicle and proceeded up to a spot on the hill which afforded a good view of the river and the vineyards. He then took us to one of the very old caves he owns that was dug into the earth below the town’s church. He spent more time on the telephone there, and most of us were getting quite hungry by this point (it was about 2 pm, and we’d been scheduled to have lunch with Benjamin, following another vineyard and winery tour that had taken all morning). From there, we slowly drove across the old town, with Benjamin and his old friend chatting at length with passing townspeople.

We finally did arrive again at the forbidding fortress Benjamin had designed for his winery, and he indicated he was now going to take us on a tour of the place. And by then our regular translator, who had been delayed by a morning meeting, rejoined us.

I would have been much happier with a bite to eat at that point, but we were then treated to a detailed explanation of the facility, with Benjamin’s comments punctuated by the constant expletives I was learning to expect from just about every sentence he spoke.

Among other things, we learned that Benjamin doesn’t think much of the people who work for him—wishing they’d work a fraction as hard as he does, and that he had recently replaced his original American importer, Jorge Ordonez, with Eric Solomon. Yes, he buys very expensive French barrels, selects his own trees for his corks, and the winery is studded with artworks he’s acquired. Honestly, though, I found the man to be so full of himself and so rude in his treatment of guests that I had pretty much tuned out by the time we got to the bottling facilities.

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During our entire week in Rioja, visiting winemakers and wineries non-stop, everyone else we met was wonderfully welcoming and gracious, exhibiting the warmth and hospitality Rioja is famous for. So we knew there was something very un-Rioja-like about Benjamin. And sure enough, the man’s wines don’t taste like they’re from Rioja either.

Benjamin apparently finally tired of haranguing us, so we adjourned to a kitchen/tasting room in the winery, where, at a little after 3 pm, he indicated we were going to taste his current wines and he was going to serve us food he had made.

The late lunch—consisting of sliced tomatoes and a traditional sort of stew of chorizo with potatoes–was the least of the meals we had in Rioja. This is perhaps not a fair comparison since we had many remarkably delicious lunches and dinners while visiting winemakers there. During the course of the meal, however, Benjamin became noticeably belligerent with us.

Maybe he’d expected us to fawn over his wines like Parker and the Wine Advocate’s Jay Miller. When he did ask us what we thought about the wines, we were polite but not glowing in our assessments. One of us mentioned they didn’t taste much like Rioja. That sent him off on a tirade, asking why he had to make old-fashioned Rioja-style wines just because he’s based in that region. He insisted he makes the kinds of wines he wants to make regardless of where he is. Well, no wonder many of them—the high scoring Parker wines anyway—taste like over-extracted, intense wines from the Priorat or Paso Robles, i.e., just like other high scoring Parker wines, with no sense of place.

He complained about us spitting his wines—clearly he didn’t concern himself with our need to try to stay alert and make some sense of our experience of visiting three to four wineries a day, which is virtually impossible without spitting most of the several dozen wines we were given to taste. He also complained about having received 100 points for his wines. I kid you not.

According to Benjamin, because of his high scores, people “mark up my wines ridiculously.” He said it wasn’t his fault that his wines are going for $800 at New York restaurants. “The market takes advantage of it. Everybody’s a son of a bitch, looking out for themselves and trying to make money.” We explained that at $300 or so retail, and with limited allocations in the States, that’s not an unusual mark up for a high end, sought after wine. He claimed, “I have the most risk and I get the lowest profit margins.” He claimed he wished he was in the distribution business.

At some point he heard Joe Roberts, 1WineDude, who also writes for Playboy Online, say something about Playboy, which he apparently heard, or which was translated by his less than competent interpreter, as accusing Benjamin of being just a “playboy” and not a hardworking winemaker. That sent him off on another gratuitous tirade. He had a big knife in his hand during much of this “conversation,” so I decided to keep as quiet as possible.

Sons of Bitches
photo courtesy EatonAlive ©2012 http://wineharlots.com

A few of his lower priced wines, actually, aren’t over-extracted monsters. Low priced for him, though, is $40 or so a bottle, which is quite high for your average Rioja. A Mi Manera, which is made with carbonic maceration, is reminiscent of a cru Beaujolais from a ripe year, and I liked the Predicador white, although it was a lot more concentrated and dense than I am typically looking for in a Spanish white. The best of the wines he poured were two that were dedicated to his parents, the Viña de Andres Romeo and a new wine in honor of his mother, called Carmen. Both were flavorful and complex—not speaking of Rioja at all, but tasty wines. Both, however, are made in small quantities and sold for prices that, while not quite as high as the Contador, still make them difficult to recommend for most consumers.

I was quietly ecstatic when we finally left the place after our five hour stay–one of the two most unpleasant winery visits of my life.

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Miguel Merino’s restored 19th century house and experimental vineyard

Miguel Merino, by contrast, whom we had visited the day before, is one of the most articulate, avuncular and charming individuals one could ever hope to meet, regardless of profession or nationality. I’d be happy to spend hours listening to him and his witty and philosophical observations.

He was looking a little rumpled, from having been working around his winery before we got there, but he gave us a delightful tour of the facility he had built in 1990, adjoining a 19th century house in Briones that he had restored.

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Miguel Merino

Miguel had worked in the wine trade in Rioja for decades, serving as export director for several wineries. Instead of retiring, though, he decided to fulfill a longtime dream of making his own wine, in small quantities, mainly from old vine vineyards, all located around this town that he thought was one of the most ideal locations for growing Tempranillo. The first vintage for his eponymous winery was 1994.

He showed us the sorting table where all the grapes are sorted. Those that are bad go into the “hell” pile, to be used to feed livestock, and those that are marginal are designated for “purgatory,” i.e., to be made into wine solely for the family and friends. Only the best grapes, then, make it into the estate’s wines.

Miguel and his son, Miguel, Jr., who helps with winemaking and makes his own wine, Unnum, under the Miguel Merino label, have relied on native yeast for fermentation for the past 10 years. They sometimes have to cool down the stainless steel fermenting tanks by wetting down with cold water a large piece of red cloth that is wrapped around the tank.

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The wine is then placed into Franco-American barrels—“AFF” barrels that have American oak staves and French oak heads. They practice daily battonage during the malolactic fermentations. The wines then spend at least the requisite amount of time in barrel required of reservas and gran reservas, before additional aging in bottle.

The wines are quite impressive across the board. Except for the Unnum, which is made in a more concentrated style and aged in French oak, they all taste of Rioja, but are more intensely flavored and complex than most traditional Rioja that has been aged in oak and bottle for the same length of time. There’s also an unusual and flavorful single vineyard bottling made entirely of Mazuelo, which is known as Carignan in France and America.

There’s a gentility and refinement to the wines that’s not unlike the winemaker himself, and their complexity produces both pleasure and engages the intellect, again, much like spending time with Miguel.

In sum, there is much to be said for flavorful, complex, modern Riojas, especially if they have a sense of place and taste like spicy, delicious, Tempranillo-based wine. When their winemaker is also a delightful human being and his well made wines represent an excellent value, I can’t recommend them highly enough. By contrast, I have little use for high priced wines from Rioja that taste like they could be from anywhere. When their winemaker also happens to be a self absorbed, cartoonishly arrogant individual who actually has the gall to complain about receiving Parker 100 point scores, you’ll have to excuse me for not being particularly concerned what happens to him or his wines.

For my complete tasting notes on both the Benjamin Romeo and Miguel Merino wines, see below.

VISIT TO VINOS DE BENJAMIN ROMEO (CONTADOR) – San Vicente, Rioja, Spain (6/28/2012)

Whites

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  • 2010 Benjamin Romeo Rioja Predicador – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
    Light yellow color; floral, apricot nose; tasty, poised, tart peach, light green herb, floral, mineral palate, juicy and refreshing; medium-plus finish 91+ points (50% Garnacha Blanca, 30% Malvasia, 20% Viura) (91 pts.)
  • 2010 Vins del Massís Catalunya Macizo – Spain, Catalunya
    Light lemon yellow color; intense, ripe pear, French oak, vanilla nose; juicy, a little hot, medium-bodied-plus, ripe pear, tart apricot, fresh applesauce, French oak palate; medium-plus finish (blend of Garnacha Blanca, Xarel-lo and Malvasia; 14.5% alcohol) (89 pts.)
  • 2010 Benjamin Romeo Rioja Que Bonito Cacareaba – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
    Light yellow color; aromatic, ripe peach, baked peach, tart pear nose; juicy, tart pear, mineral, tart peach palate with salinity and heat; medium-plus finish (blend of Malvasia, Garnacha Blanca and Viura; 15% alcohol) (90 pts.)

Less Expensive Reds

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  • 2010 Benjamin Romeo Rioja Predicador – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
    Very dark purple red violet color; tart berry, blueberry, French oak, tar, lavender nose; tasty, tart berry, herbs, lavender, wild berry palate; medium-plus finish 90+ points (90% Tempranillo, 10% Garnacha; 14.5% alcohol) (90 pts.)
  • 2011 Benjamin Romeo Rioja A Mi Manera – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
    Medium dark purple red violet color; tart black fruit, pepper, herbs nose; herbs, tart black fruit, olive palate; medium-plus finish (from grapes not used for La Vina de Andres Romeo; reminiscent of a ripe Beaujolais) (89 pts.)

Contador and La Cueva

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  • 2010 Benjamin Romeo Rioja La Cueva del Contador – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
    Nearly opaque purple red violet color; focused, tart berry, blueberry, wild berry, lavender nose; rich, ripe, fruity, tart blackberry, wild berry, berry compote, boysenberry palate with a sense of salinity; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
  • 2010 Benjamin Romeo Rioja Contador – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
    Opaque purple red violet color; intense, grapey, blackberry, black fruit, lavender, black cherry nose; tight, concentrated, ripe black fruit, blackberry, lavender, blueberry palate with low acidity; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (reminiscent of a Switchback Petite Sirah) (91 pts.)

Wines in honor of Benjamin’s parents

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  • 2010 Benjamin Romeo Rioja La Vina De Andres Romeo Liende – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
    Opaque purple red violet color; rich, intense, blackberry, French oak, berry compote, lavender nose; concentrated, tart blackberry, lavender, ripe black fruit, Syrah-like palate; long finish 93+ points (15% alcohol) (93 pts.)
  • 2007 Benjamin Romeo Rioja Carmen – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
    Pre-release (10/12 release) – very dark purple red violet color; appealing, ripe berry, French oak, dark chocolate, lavender nose; tart berry, black fruit, herbs, dark chocolate, mineral palate with depth; needs 3 years; medium-plus finish (93 pts.)

VISIT TO BODEGAS MIGUEL MERINO – Briones, Rioja, Spain (6/27/2012)

Mazuelo

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  • 2009 Miguel Merino Mazuelo de la Quinta Cruz – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
    Dark ruby color; savory, herbs, tar, light green peppercorn nose with a sense of white pepper; tasty, savory, herbs, mineral, green peppercorn palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points (50% French, 50% American oak, 1/3 new; vineyard planted by mistake in 1981–farmer had intended to plant Graciano) (92 pts.)

Tempranillos

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  • 2008 Miguel Merino Rioja Vinas Jovenes – Spain, La Rioja, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
    Very dark ruby color; very appealing, lifted, berry, berry syrup, vanilla, blackberry, mulberry nose with subtle herbs; rich, complex, tart blackberry, blueberry, herbs, camphor, mineral palate; could use another 2 years; medium-plus finish (a terrific buy for $20 at K&L) (92 pts.)
  • 2004 Miguel Merino Rioja Reserva Vitola – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
    Lightly bricking medium dark ruby color; dried herbs, tart dried cherry, light tobacco, thyme, dried tarragon nose; tight, tasty, complex, savory, tart dried cherry, thyme, mineral palate; needs 3-plus years; medium-plus finish 93+ points (96% Tempranillo, with Mazuelo, Garnacha and Graciano) (93 pts.)
  • 2005 Miguel Merino Rioja Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
    Dark ruby color; very appealing, complex, dried berry, licorice, dried black fruit nose; complex, structured, dried berry, dried herbs, tart licorice, tart blackberry, mineral palate; long finish 94+ points (great buy at $30 at K&L) (94 pts.)
  • 2004 Miguel Merino Rioja Gran Reserva – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
    Medium dark ruby color; dried thyme, lemon verbena, incipient tobacco, cigar box, thyme nose; complex, deeper register, tobacco, tart dried black fruit, tar, dried blackberry and blueberry; needs 4-5 years and should go 20+; long finish (29 mos in 18 French barrels & 11 American barrels; 96% Tempranillo with Mazuelo, Garnacha, Graciano; Barolo-like; great buy at K&L for $40) (95 pts.)

Miguel’s son’s wine

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  • 2008 Miguel Merino Rioja Unnum – Spain, La Rioja, Rioja
    Very dark ruby color; torrefaction, mocha, espresso beans, black licorice nose; torrefaction, ripe berry, black fruit palate, reminiscent of a Parkerized Right Bank Bordeaux; long finish (92 pts.)

8 Responses leave one →
  1. August 9, 2012

    Great write-up of the Rioja visits we had this summer.
    I wish I could say you were exaggerating for literary license, but the Romero visit was exactly as you described. You forgot to mention that the 2+ hours were we’re traipsing outdoors, it was 100 degrees outside. The first stop at the river with the vines in the background, and the chilled white wine and white asparagus was picture perfect — the eight other stops were a bit self-indulgent.

    I thought his wines were delicious, and I’m still miffed that he wouldn’t sell me a couple of bottles of the “inexpensive” A Mi Manera (under $20 wholesale) wine to take to the North American Wine Bloggers conference this August. Your explanation was that he considered himself an “artist” not a “merchant” and the exchange of money for arts was crass. I just wanted to share with other writers (and my audience) an affordable, delicious wine made by a world-renowned wine maker.

    Miguel Merino was an terrific visit, and the wines were extraordinary — and I have a bottle Stateside if anyone wants a sample!

    It great traveling with you, and the rest of the “Top Wine Bloggers.” Next trip, I’ll bring the red Solo spit cups!

    All the best,

    Nannette Eaton

    • Richard Jennings permalink*
      August 9, 2012

      Nannette,

      Thank you for the kind words, and thanks for the reminder about the heat. I realized this morning I failed to mention that while he was taking us around to all those vineyards, it was around 100 degrees out. And thank you for the knife wielding shot.

      Happy travels to you,
      Richard

  2. September 8, 2012

    Hi Richard,

    I absolutely loved this post and agree 100% with your assessment.

    Kind regards,

    Tom

    • Richard Jennings permalink*
      September 8, 2012

      Tom,

      That means a lot, coming from you. Many thanks for the kind words.

      –Richard

  3. January 7, 2013

    This is very interesting, You’re an overly professional blogger. I’ve joined your rss feed and look forward to seeking more of your fantastic post. Also, I have shared your website in my social networks

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