Pairing Wine with Mexican Food

Since 2009 I’ve been organizing wine pairing dinners twice per year for family and friends. As there is room for 12-16 at a time, I repeat each theme three times (so in total 6 wine pairing dinners per year, 3 in May/June and 3 in November). I will pair each course with two wines, so at the end of the evening there are a lot of empty bottles on display.

This time around the theme was Mexican food, and in the photo we are toasting to Richard and Elia, as Richard got me started on Mexican food (especially eating chiles!) and Elia helped me put together the menu.

Mexican food is not easy to pair wine with, because it is often quite spicy. Many wines accentuate the spiciness, rather than dousing the heat. At the same time the dishes can have a lot of flavor, and require wines that can stand up to that. In the three rounds we tried up to 6 different wines with each dish, as I kept the food the same but changed some of the wines because I wanted to try something else or because I didn’t have 3 bottles of each wine.

Below is a description of the six dishes and wine pairings. Click on the links to go to the recipes for the dishes.

The first course was a Mexican version of ceviche. (I don’t believe it is very Mexican to serve it in a shell, but using these meant less dishes that needed to be washed up and used again during the evening.) Ceviche is originally a Peruvian dish (click here for my recipe), but it has been adopted by Mexico. It is still raw seafood ‘cooked’ in lime juice — the main difference is that in Mexico more chillies are used. I prepared a yellowtail ceviche with red and green jalapeños. In the photo you can see how each dish is served with half a glass of two different wines, labeled as 1 and 2. The ceviche has a fresh flavor profile and thus calls for a crisp wine, which is a challenge because crisp wines are often high in acidity.

These are the wines I served with the ceviche: three different Albariños from Rias Baixas in Spain, and every time the same Pecorello from Calabria in Italy:

  • Palacio de Fefiñanes, Albariño de Fefiñanes, 2015
  • Palacio de Fefiñanes, Albariño de Fefiñanes III Año, 2013, aged for 5 months on the lees with regular stirring
  • Adega Eidos, Albariño Contra a Parede, 2011, from 90-year old vines, aged for 3-4 years on the lees with regular stirring
  • Ippolito 1845, Pecorello, Calabria IGT, 2018

All of the wines worked with the ceviche. The largest difference was the amount of heat in the ceviche, which varied quite a bit due to the different heat levels of the jalapeños (which is not always the same, and also depends on whether the white pith has been trimmed away or is included). The first Albariño had the highest acidity and thus had more difficulty with the jalapeños. It was also a bit old — this style of Albariño is usually consumed when it is younger and still more fruity. Because of the age all three Albariños had become a bit creamy, which worked very well with the yellowtail (which is a fatty fish). I think this would have worked very well with a younger Albariño from a vineyard that is not as close to the sea as these two producers, and thus will have less acidity. The Pecorello was excellent and the safest choice, because it is lower in acidity and is more fruity. I’ve served it often with Peruvian ceviche, and it could also handle the more spicy Mexican version. The Pecorello gets its structure from some nice bitter notes rather than high acidity and thus is reminiscent of grapefruit.

The second course was tuna tacos: fried corn tortillas with guacamole, pico de gallo, and seared tuna with a ancho chile rub. This dish has both fresh notes (from the pico de gallo and guacamole) and risp notes (from the fried tacos and ancho chile rub) and has a medium flavor profile. So it calls for a wine that is neither too fresh or too ripe.

I had served just the tuna with ancho chile rub with Rosé from Provence before, and knew that would work. I also tried some different whites that were not too high in acidity (because of the heat) and not too fresh or too ripe. The five wines I served with the tuna tacos were:

  • Domaine Ott, Château Romassan, 2017, Bandol, France, Rosé, mourvèdre, cinsault, grenache, syrah
  • Domaine Ott, By Ott, 2018, Côtes de Provence, France, Rosé, cinsault, grenache, syrah
  • Ceraudo, Grisara, 2018, Calabria, Italy, pecorello
  • Anselmi, Capitel Croce, 2017, Veneto, Italy, garganega
  • Surrau, Scialà, 2018, Vermentino di Gallura, Sardinia, Italy, vermentino

None of the wines clashed with the food. The best matches were the Côtes de Provence, the Pecorello, and the Garganega. The Château Romassan is less fruity and more mineral than the By Ott. It is a much better wine, but with this dish the cheaper wine was a better match because the dish made the wine seem less interesting than it was without the dish. The Vermentino was too full-bodied for the dish. The Pecorello (same grape as the wine with the ceviche, but made with lower yields in a more concentrated style) worked very well with the dish. My favorite was the Capital Croce 2017, with just the right balance between fruity and a more mineral style. We also tried this with the 2018, which worked but was still more fruity than the 2017 with less of the minerality showing yet.

The third course is Chile en Nogada: a poblano chile stuffed with pork, nuts, fruits, and served with a walnut sauce and pomegranate seeds. This is again difficult to pair wine with, because it contains sweet elements: pomegranate seeds, pear, and raisins. It could also have heat from the poblano pepper, because some poblanos are like green bell pepper and some are as hot as a jalapeño. The walnut sauce is a bit astringent and there are nutty elements in the dish as well: the walnuts and the almonds. There are also fresh elements: the goat cheese, sour cream, and pomegranate seeds. The first time I prepared this dish I paired it with a Californian Chardonnay and that did not work very well as the dish made the wine seem too astringent (even though it was quite creamy by itself). And so I picked wines that were even more creamy and with some age to get “nutty” notes, and I also tried one with marked residual sweetness.

The four different wines I paired this with were:

  • Aimé Stenz, Pinot Gris Grand Cru Hengst, 2017, Alsace, France, 12 months in large oak casks
  • Domaine Boissonnet, Condrieu 2015, Rhone, France, viognier
  • Suavia, Le Rive 2015, Veneto, Italy, garganega, 12 months barrique, 20% new
  • Spiriti Ebbri, Neostos Bianco, 2017, Calabria, Italy, Pecorello, 10% fermented in used barriques

The pinot gris has marked residual sugar and although it did work with the dish, I thought it was too sweet. The other three wines are (nearly) completely dry, and despite the sweet elements in the dish they all worked very well with it.The Condrieu has developed a nutty buttery character because of the age (4 years is already quite old for Condrieu) and worked wonders with the dish. Yet another Pecorello from Calabria, which is very different from the other two because it is made in an oxidative style. This gives the wine a nutty character that works very well with the dish. Like the Capitel Croce, Le Rive is a Soave that is made outside of the appellation. The grapes are overripe so the wine has low acidity and because the wine is aged in barriques it has a nutty character, which worked very well with the dish.

The beef enchiladas with salsa verde was the most spicy dish of the evening. The beef calls for red, but because of the spiciness a spicy wine is needed with smooth tannins that is not too high in acidity. Harsh tannins or high acidity would clash with the heat. At the same time, the wine should be able to handle the strong flavor of the dish.

The three wines that I served with the enchiladas were:

Both the Mencia and Petit Verdot are spicy with smooth tannins, and thus work well with the dish. The Petit Verdot is special, because this grape variety is usually only used in very small percentages (5% or less) in Bordeaux blends, and this is varietal wine is 100% Petit Verdot. This is possible because unlike in Bordeaux, in Sicily the grapes become very ripe. For the Mencía it is important that it is from a warm vintage (because otherwise the acidity could be too high) and with some bottle age (to smoothen the tannins). The Pinot Noir did work with the dish, but not as well as the Mencía and the Petit Verdot. A Pinot Noir from Burgundy would have been too light and acidic. A wine that would probably work with this dish as well is a Zweigelt from Austria, because it can also be spicy with smooth tannins.

The final savory course was Chicken mole. Because of the chocolate in the sauce and strong flavor profile with quite a bit of heat and astringency, this was another challenge to pick a wine for. The wine would need a lot of flavor without harsh tannins or high acidity.

The four wines I served with the chicken mole were:

  • Racemi, Sinfarosa 2016, Primito di Manduria (Zinfandel), Puglia, Italy
  • Roeno, Amarone della Valpolicella 2012, Veneto, Italy
  • Masi, Costasera 2013, Amarone dell Valpolicella, Veneto, Italy
  • Stefano Mancinelli, Lacrima di Morro d’Alba Superiore 2005, Marche, Italy

Because some Amarone can smell of chocolate, I thought that would be a good choice. However, the tannins in the first Amarone I tried, the Roeno, were accentuated by the astringency of the mole. Although it wasn’t bad, it was not as good as I had hoped. But I didn’t give up and tried again with the Masi. It has smoother tannins and was indeed a very good pairing with the mole. The Primitivo/Zinfandel was very easy. This grape variety has high sugar in the grapes, and thus high alcohol (15% in this case) and perhaps some residual sugar. I think Zinfandel from Lodi would also work very well with mole. Finally I decided to try a very rare wine, one of the last remaining bottles from my first wine buying trip to Italy in 2008. This Lacrima di Morro d’Alba is  made in the Marche (known for its Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi) from a rare aromatic variety that smells of roses. In its youth the wine has marked tannins, but since this bottle was from 2005 I expected the tannins to be smooth. And indeed they were. Although this wine was not as full-bodied as the Amarones or Primitivo, because of the aromatic character it did work very well with the dish.

The dessert was a chocoflan with four elements: vanilla flan, chocolate cake, caramel sauce (dulce de leche) and toasted pecans. With desserts the first thing to match is always the level of sweetness. The wine should have the same sweetness as the dish, or slightly higher. Because of the caramel, chocolate, and nuts, this dessert clearly calls for a more “aged” type of dessert wine rather than a fruity one. So a wine that has either been aged in the bottle or has been made from dried grapes.

I actually made this dessert again the other day, and thus got to try it with seven different dessert wines:

  • Château de Myrat 2009, Sauternes, France, semillon, sauvignon blanc, muscadelle
  • Torres, Floralis, Moscatel, Spain, fortified muscat
  • Delgado Zuleta, Pedro Ximénez (PX) Monteagudo, Jerez, Spain
  • Camilo Castilla, Capricho de Goya, Navarra, Spain, muscat aged in large glass bottles on the roof
  • L’Étoile, Banyuls Grand Cru Doux paillé, hors d’âge, Roussillon, France, aged in large glass bottles on the roof, grenache
  • Valentino Butussi, Picolit 2009, Colli Orientali del Friuli, Italy, passito (dried grapes)
  • La Tunella, Verduzzo 2016, Friuli Colli Orientali, Italy, passito (dried grapes)

The PX and the Capricho de Goya were too sweet for the dessert and overpowered it. These wines are often a great choice with chocolate, but not in this case. The two Italian passito wines both worked very well. They picked up the pecans and didn’t clash with the other components of the dessert. I didn’t expect a Sauternes would be sweet enough, but I tried one from 2009 as that vintage has very high levels of sugar, and it worked very well. Because the wine has been aged in oak and then in the bottle it also worked well with the caramel, if not perfect with the chocolate and nuts. The Moscatel worked very well, although the wine was perhaps a bit simple compared to the dessert. The Banyuls was more complex, but it should have been marginally sweeter for a perfect match.

As a concluding remark, this experience clearly showed how important it is to taste the specific wine with the specific dish. Just saying “Albariño works well with Ceviche” is too simple, because not all Albariños are the same and not all Ceviche is prepared the same. Especially the acidity in the wine and amount of heat in the Ceviche will determine whether the wine pairing will actually work, but also the type of fish used in the ceviche and the age of the wine.


2 thoughts on “Pairing Wine with Mexican Food

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