Rioja: the restaurant—and the wine

I know that the cat’s already been let way out of this bag, but Jennifer Jasinski, owner and chef at Denver’s Rioja Restaurant on Larimer Street, is a master chef whose skills can only be described as superb.

A few years ago, this very publication featured a story about the five top chefs in Colorado. This was before anyone knew of Rioja the restaurant, but Jasinski shined brightly in the article for a whole host of reasons: she’s inventive beyond imagination, she’s one of the hardest working chefs in the region, and she’s a terrific, friendly, lively human being.

Add to that list of character traits her uncanny ability to develop a list of Rioja wines to her menu to make your heart stop. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

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Rioja the restaurant takes its name, of course, from Rioja the Spanish wine region – a region with a long and glorious viniculture history that the U.S. has only begun, in the last 20 years or so, to truly appreciate and embrace. Although Rioja is long recognized in Spain, the entire country produces award-winning wine.

“La Rioja” is the continental climate region in Spain that produces the famous wine. Mountains help isolate the region and protect the vineyards from northern Spain’s winds. Most of the region is on a plateau, approximately 1,500 feet above sea level and the region is broken up into the Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Baja regions.

There are distinctions worth noting when shopping for Rioja from these three regions: Rioja Alta is known more for its “old world” style of wine. Since Rioja Alta sits at a higher elevation which equates to a shorter growing season, the wines produced offer unripe fruit flavors and a nose that is lighter on the palate. Rioja Alavesa produces wines with a fuller body and higher acidity. Vineyards in the Rioja Alavesa area have a low vine density with large spacing between rows. Lastly, the Rioja Baja is strongly influenced by a Mediterranean climate, which makes for wines that are very deeply colored and can be highly alcoholic with some wines at 18%.

In 2008, the Regulatory Council for the La Rioja Denomination of Origin created a new logo to go on all bottles of wine produced under the Rioja designation. Bottles of wine from the La Rioja Qualified Denomination of Origin are now designed to appeal to younger wine lovers, the long-standing logo replaced with a brighter, more modern logo with cleaner lines. The aim is to reflect the new, modern aspects of wine growing in La Rioja without detracting from the traditional wines. The look represents a Tempranillo vine symbolising “heritage, creativity and dynamism”.

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All of this Rioja backstory leads us to Denver’s Rioja Restaurant and Jasinski’s hand-picked wine list. It’s a robust wine list, with plenty for white wine and Rose lovers. But the stars of this wine show appear on the reds side of Jasinski’s list. She includes Riojas priced from about $35 a bottle up. Highlights include a 2004 Lealtanza Seleccion Especial Reserva, Rioja, a 2005 Sierra Cantabria Crianza, Rioja and – the choice that still resonates a week after drinking it – the 2005 Muga Reserva Unfiltered, Rioja.

Many write about Jaskinski’s never-stagnant menu, and rightfully so. Her latest invention, the Colorado Lamb Two Ways. features a grilled t-bone, house-made lamb merguez sausage, crisp couscous pillows, caramelized fennel, tomato coulis, with preserved lemon yogurt. It is nothing short of a miracle on a plate.

But if there’s one place in Denver to take your breath away for a heavenly glass of Rioja it’s at Rioja, where all the men are strong, all the women are good looking and all the wines are way, way above average.

Word o’ the Week

Rioja Classifications: Rioja wines are classified into four categories. The Rioja labeled simply “Rioja,” is the youngest wine, spending less than a year in an oak aging barrel. “Crianza” on the label means the wine was aged for at least two years, at least one of those years in oak. “Rioja Reserva” indicates that the wine was aged for at least three years, of which one of those years is in oak. A bottled labeled “Rioja Gran Reserva” indicates aging at least two years in oak and three years in a bottle.

One Winning Wine Tasting

Aurora Symphony Orchestra Wine Social “Sips with the Symphony”

On Saturday, April 24, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., Dumitri’s on the Green at Heather Ridge Country Club will host the Aurora Symphony’s annual fundraiser, “Sips with the Symphony”. Guests will have the opportunity to taste several varieties of wine and enjoy hors d’oeurves from local restaurants, while bidding on fine wines and art.

Dumitri’s is located at 13521 E. Iliff Ave. in Aurora and cost is $20. Call 303.873.6662 for further information or visit www.aurorasymphony.org.

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