I was a picky kid growing up in L.A., but spices and heat didn’t stop Mexican food from becoming part of my lifeblood. It’s comfort food; I bite into my enchilada or burrito or quesadilla and say to myself “Ah, just like mother used to buy” as a squirt of guacamole hits my tongue. And while this Cali-Mex or TexMex rendition of the country’s cuisine continues to gain popularity, Mexican food has also moved uptown with exquisite preparations that include traditional recipes brought north by enterprising chefs as well as fusions of Mexican spices with French techniques - and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Italian food in America underwent a similar transformation not long ago.
For a long time the accompaniment of choice for Mexican food has been beer or margaritas. Both are refreshing; beer cuts the spice somewhat, and the lime of a traditional margarita blends well with much of Mexican cuisine. But we’re talking about food, and the love of food’s life is wine. Why is wine so rarely part of the Mexican meal?
History plays a part. When Mexico was still a colony their Spanish overseers prohibited winemaking so that the country would be obligated to buy wines produced back in the Old Country. Wine became a drink of the rich, while the bulk of the population drank tequila, brandy, and beer. (This has begun to change, and there is even a growing number of quality wineries in Mexico itself.) More recently, American trends in wine consumption have favored wines that don’t suit Mexican food. Big Cabernets and other tannic reds, for example, usually clash; the tannins exaggerate the spiciness instead of soothing the palate. That most popular of whites, Chardonnay, fares better, but still has difficulties. The character of the food survives, but the oaky flavors of the wine often come off bitter and harsh.
However, there are plenty of matches that do work well, especially outside the fold of the most popular varietals. I’ve rounded up some Mexican or Mexican-influenced recipes from a few of our favorite chefs and found them some dancing partners that move well with them:
Mexican-Style Shrimp with Garlic and Limes
This appetizer packs a lot of refreshing summer flavors together to give a lighter dish a great deal of complexity. You could say the same about the 2002 Martivilli Rueda from Spain. This wine, made from Spain’s indigenous Verdejo grape, has the acidity and raciness of a Sauvignon Blanc, without the grassy character. Great honeydew melon, apple, and herbal notes are topped by a floater of flowers. Acidity works well with seafood and the limes meld with the wine to emphasize its fruitiness.
Spanish and Italian wines are often a great match with Mexican food. Even the reds are safer than many, as tannins in a Rioja or a Chianti usually don’t reach the excesses that Cabernet Sauvignon can achieve.
Jicama Salad with Tangerines and Fresh Coriander
Both Frontera Grill’s sommelier Jill Gubesch and I thought that this was a classic case: pair a wine with a touch of sweetness with a spicy dish and you’ll never need your water glass. I thought that the 2001 Bert Simon Serrig Herrenberg Riesling Kabinett would do the job particularly well; it has its own tangerine notes to match with the real thing in the salad and even a touch of spritz so you won’t miss your beer. This wine is a bit more substantial and tangier than many Rieslings from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer area, but has that solid minerality typical of the region.
German Rieslings, whether sweet or not, have lower alcohol and a mildness that lends itself to many lighter, spicy Mexican dishes. And since they remain out of fashion – despite being one of the classic wines of the world – their prices are on the whole quite reasonable.
I spoke to Ryan Salvo, the sommelier at Roxanne’s, and we talked about some of the usual suspects for accompanying spicy dishes. German Riesling came up, as did rosés. After I put down the phone I realized that Brachetto d’Acqui may not be just for strawberries anymore. This sweet Italian sparkling wine is made from the Brachetto grape in the Piedmont region of Italy. Furthermore, Castellucci Elisabetta’s rendition is made entirely from organic grapes, which is in keeping with Roxanne’s all-natural, organic cuisine. Normally I would say that Brachetto d’Acqui is too sweet to pair with anything this side of dessert, but a spicy soup with a tomato base has the acidity and heat to keep pace. The bubbles in the wine are an added bonus, as it adds a textural contrast to the pairing that a still wine would lack.
with Huitlacoche Butter
A full-flavored fish supported by the earthy huitlacoche butter but lightened by cilantro and tomatillos, this dish calls for a wine capable of similar acrobatics like the 2002 Ponzi Pinot Gris from the Williamette Valley in Oregon. With pear and apple aromas and a nutty element on the palate, there’s a rich, glycerine touch to this medium-bodied wine that meets the earthy aspects of the dish, plus great acidity to echo the brighter touches on the plate.
Oregonian Pinot Gris and white wines from Alsace are good calls when you need a white wine with some body but without oak. California also makes some Pinot Gris that would fill the bill on such occasions.
en Nogada (Stuffed Chiles with Walnut Sauce)
Here’s a recipe that can take some oak. The chiles are roasted, which tones down the heat, and the toast and caramel of oak-aging are a hit with the creaminess of the walnut sauce. Classic California Chardonnays are the way to go for whites; my first thought, however, was a well-oaked Spanish red like the 1998 Emilio Moro Ribera del Duero. Brimming over with smoke, toast, blueberries, and portabello mushrooms, this rich wine finishes with notes of dark berries and roasted coffee, and brings out the depth and earthiness in the dish.
Veal Loin with Mole Sauce, Grain Cakes, Chipolte Hollandaise, and Fruit
Another tricky combination of fruit, earthy flavors, and some heat. Zinfandel can take it on, especially something like the 2002 Seghesio Home Ranch Zinfandel from the Alexander Valley. It’s got tons of black fruit – boysenberry, blueberry, black raspberry – topped by notes of bing cherry and some spice and jasmine. Full-bodied but low in tannins, the dark fruits meet the mole on its own terms and the floral notes lighten the wine just as the fruit salsa lightens the dish.
Zinfandel is often considered a quintessentially American wine, both because of its history here and because it makes a perfect match for the traditional American barbecue. Fairly recently it was discovered to be genetically identical to the Primitivo grape grown in Puglia, the heel of Italy. In Italy its wines sometimes have a more reserved quality, but still makes a good match with many meat-based Mexican dishes - and many Primitivos are quite affordable, so you may find that wine isn’t just a match with upscale Mexican cuisine: the bottle with your burrito need not be beer.