Move Over, Margaritas
Wines are increasingly the beverage choice to pair with Mexican cuisine.
The pairing shocked me: shrimp fajitas and White Zinfandel?
And yet there I was, snug on Mexico’s Pacific Coast in Cabo San Lucas last December, sipping a varietal that was last on any American high-end restaurant’s wine list nearly two decades ago. But it worked—very well, in fact. The acidity and full body of the L.A. Cetto White Zinfandel, from Mexico’s Baja California region, cut through the spicy shrimp fajitas with ease.
In town for the ninth annual Sabor a Cabo food and wine event, I made a vow to only drink Mexican wines with each meal in an attempt to give the country’s wines a true test-drive. While Mexican wines have been made commercially since 1597— starting at Casa Madero, Mexico’s oldest winery located near Monterrey—only recently did they achieve acclaim. Nowhere was this truer than at Sabor a Cabo’s Grand Tasting, held at a sculpture garden in San Jose del Cabo. Dozens of Mexico wineries poured glasses for glam patrons dressed in suits and gowns, while food stations dished out tacos, pulled pork, and other Mexican delicacies.
Clearly, wine with Mexican food is now a popular trend.
It turns out I was on to something. Even back in the U.S., the notion of pairing Mexican foods with wine, essentially abandoning the conventional margarita or even a cold beer, is the new thing to do.
It’s a movement not lost on chef-owner Richard Sandoval, also in town for the Sabor a Cabo event. “Before, you would think of Mexican food with a beer or a margarita. Today it pairs well with wines, too. I prefer to go with more acidic, fruitier wines,” explains Chef Sandoval, who has restaurants around the world, like Pompano in Manhattan and Bahia in Nayarit, Mexico. He owns restaurants in Denver, Las Vegas, New York City, Washington, D.C., Arizona, and Southern California, plus international destinations like Dubai, Tokyo, Qatar, and Serbia. For wine pairings, Pinot Noirs and Malbecs are his top picks. This is especially true with chilies and spicy sauces, he says. “You want a clean wine to cleanse your palate.”
Given the diversity of Mexican food—driven in part by a geography that spans land-locked as well as coastal regions and that features an abundance of moles, peppers, and spices—the sheer variety of wines is a godsend.
“I really like Malbec with a nice skirt steak and chimichurri,” says Chef Sandoval. White wines also match well with coastal Mexican cuisine, he adds. “I really like Albariños with ceviche. Sparkling wines go very well with ceviche, too.”
One reason for the elevated pairings of wine with Mexican food is the transition of Latino cuisine to more upscale restaurants. Once reduced to casual hole-in-the-wall joints, diners can now order ceviche or tamales at five-star restaurants. One example is Javier’s in Dallas, where guests can order a magnum bottle of 1995 Moět et Chandon Cuvée Dom Pérignon ($925) and Puntas Rancheras ($24.95), spicy tenderloin tips sautéed with tomato, baked Serrano peppers, and garlic. Wine selections range from Napa Valley to Mendoza, Argentina, and many regions in between.
Similarly, Chef Sandoval strives to feature Chilean and Argentine wines in his restaurants, with some New World selections—especially Pinot Noirs—folded in for good measure. He estimates his wine lists are about 65 percent from Latin countries and 35 percent from other wine-producing areas.
The nature of small-production operations combined with a healthy domestic consumption unfortunately means that Mexican wines are distributed selectively north of the border and available in only a few markets. “I wish that they would make Mexican wines more accessible to us, too,” says Chef Sandoval, adding that they are often priced so high that diners who are not familiar with the wines won’t take a chance on them. As for his preferences, he’s particularly fond of wines from the Guadalupe Valley. “You get this very mineral wine, due to the saltiness (in the terroir).”
Indeed, as my tour of Mexican wines with spicy food continued, the day after my shrimp-and-White-Zin revelation I sat down with a glass of 2013 L.A. Cetto Sierra Blanca Sauvignon Blanc (Baja, Mexico) at Los Tamarindos, an organic farm and restaurant. The spice from every dish I tried—tamales ratatouille, a salad featuring exotic greens like Scarlet frills plus beets and balsamic vinegar, fish prepared Veracruz style with olives and tomatoes, and a side of green rice—all cut through the wine. In fact, the wine worked even for the final act, a difficult dessert pairing: Dulce de Calabaza, pure sugar cane, cinnamon, and squash.
Then, at Bar Esquina in Cabo San Lucas, under a sun-dappled pergola, I enjoyed the chalkiness, weight, and pineapple notes in the 2013 Casa Madero Chenin Blanc/Chardonnay blend with a ceviche that featured fried plantains, dehydrated corn, and citrus juice. Another remarkable pairing: that same winery’s 2013 rosé (made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes) with organic local chicken and mahi mahi. That same white wine popped up again at Mi Casa in downtown Cabo San Lucas. On this second occasion, I enjoyed it alongside a pickled vegetables salad, with corn chips and mustard greens, and amberjack fish, with squash purée and pickled beet stems. Both were solid matches. Neither the wine nor the food fought for domination.
Alberto Cubilla, owner of the new wine and coffee bar El Wine Shop, a first in the Los Cabos region, agrees that the notion of marrying Mexican food with wine is nouveau. Before opening his spot in Mexico, he worked for J. Lohr Winery in California’s Central Coast as its export manager. “There’s been a renaissance in Mexico with wine just in the past five years,” he says.
Chef Sandoval is also doing his part to fuel the renaissance and introduce diners to this concept. It’s not that he’s shunning margaritas or beers. Mostly, it’s about expanding beverage options and giving Mexican food the elegance it deserves. In February, he presided over a five-course wine-pairing dinner at one of his restaurants—Zengo in Denver—with Concha y Toro wines from Chile.
“It’s a little bit challenging,” he admits, “for people to go with wine in a Mexican restaurant.” To counter this reluctance, he suggests placing emphasis on wine service. “It’s important for a server to give guests these options.”