Long articles ― even books ― have been written on pairing wine with French food, but exciting matches for Mexican food have been given short shrift: We drink beer.
This is pretty understandable. Beer tastes good with a lot of Mexican dishes. The fact is, however, what many of us think of as Mexican cuisine is really Tex-Mex food: simple combinations of refried beans and meat smothered in melted cheese, then doused with enough hot sauce to fool your mouth into believing you're eating something more complex. Tex-Mex evolved in the southwestern United States by necessity ― the resourceful creation of immigrant ranch workers who had little access to the array of chilies, vegetables, meats, and fish they had enjoyed in Mexico. In all its humbleness, it demanded a no-frills drink ― beer, not wine.
But authentic Mexican food is every bit as complex and nuanced as the great cuisines of Europe. Moreover, it's not so much patently hot as it is vividly seasoned.
All of this became clear to me last November at the 1999 Worlds of Flavor Conference devoted to the regional cuisines of Mexico, organized by the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley. In a tasting session on pairing wine with Mexican dishes, we found some startlingly delicious matches.
"Wine is the human race's most refined beverage," said conference chairman Rick Bayless, acclaimed cookbook author and chef-owner of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago. "So I'm committed to pairing it with real Mexican food, which is both sophisticated and elegant."
Bayless's insights, the conference, and my own subsequent experiments have left me with three guiding principles for great pairings.
1. The most successful wines are fresh, sleek, and crisp with acidity. Good white choices include Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio (also known as Pinot Gris), dry Riesling, and Albariño, a crisp, citrusy knockout from northwestern Spain that's phenomenal with green tomatillo-chili sauces. Acidity, however, isn't the exclusive domain of white wines. High-acid reds include Spanish Riojas (based on the Tempranillo grape), Italian Chiantis (based on Sangiovese), and Pinot Noir.
2. A second group includes wines with a plush, thick, jammy mouth-feel. Soft, juicy Zinfandels with massive fruit flavors can be sensational with earthy red chile adobo sauces, and supersupple Shirazes and Shiraz blends from Australia, with deep berry flavors, can cushion robust seasonings. If you're not a lover of such powerhouses, try a simple, overtly fruity beaujolais (made from the red grape Gamay); since it's often served chilled, it's refreshing with highly seasoned dishes.
3. Avoid Chardonnay. Its typical oaky, toasty character fights with bold, complex Mexican flavors, and the wine ends up tasting coarse and bitter. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot don't fare much better. Both have a lot of tannin, and when tannin hits the flavor of chilies, it sets your mouth on fire and you miss all the complexities of the food.
Tuck these guidelines away and experiment without fear. Accompany our recipes from Tijuana and Ensenada with a couple of wines. You'll be glad you saved the beer for another time.
SUNSET'S STEAL OF THE MONTH: Fetzer "Home Ranch" Zinfandel 1997 (California), $9. A spicy, smoky Zinfandel with hints of blackberry and cherry preserves.
Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Dry Riesling, $10. Sharp and sleek, with light yet bold citrus flavors.
Chateau St. Jean "La Petite Étoile" Fumé Blanc 1998 (Russian River Valley, CA), $14. A snazzy, snappy Sauvignon Blanc with bright herb and lemon flavors.
J Pinot Gris 1997 (Russian River Valley), $16. Elegant lemon cream pie flavors. Just right for refined seafood dishes.
Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc 1999 (Marlborough, New Zealand), $12. Because of their green herb flavors, New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs work beautifully with green chili sauces and guacamole.
Beringer Zinfandel 1998 (North Coast, CA), $12. Classic jammy Zinfandel flavors evocative of black cherries.
DuBoeuf Beaujolais Villages 1999 (Beaujolais, France), $8. Very fruity, with flavors reminiscent of grenadine and blueberry syrup. A great foil for spiciness.
Vinicola del Priorat Ònix 1998 (Priorat, Spain), $10. With its big, juicy core of cherries, this Spanish wine is a bargain.
Wolf Blass Shiraz 1997 (South Australia), $12. A terrific, supple Shiraz with the flavor of chocolate-covered cherries. A wonderful match for mole dishes.