Why do so many people automatically assume that Mexican food is better suited to beer than wine? Well, you're probably thinking, Mexican food is spicy, and beer is refreshing -- case closed. There's just one problem with that assumption: It's not exactly true. Mexican dishes aren't so much hot as they are bold and complex.
A couple of years ago, more than 400 people attended the Culinary Institute of America's Worlds of Flavor Conference, devoted to the regional cuisines of Mexico. In a session on pairing wine with Mexican dishes, participants tasted wines from around the world along with a variety of Mexican sauces as they debated the often-startlingly delicious combinations.
"Wine is the human race's most refined beverage," declared conference chairman Rick Bayless, acclaimed expert on Mexican cooking and the chef/owner of Chicago's Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, considered by many the best Mexican restaurant in the United States. "Wine tastes of the earth; it has the finesse of nature. So I'm committed to pairing it with real Mexican food, which is both sophisticated and elegant."
The key, according to Bayless: salsas. They are the foundation of real Mexican cooking. Most salsas contain no meat or dairy products, but they do boast piquant and often-powerful flavors thanks to chiles, roasted garlic, lime, cilantro, and other bold seasonings.
Which wines work best with such liveliness? First, wines that are high in acid. These include Sauvignon Blancs and dry Rieslings. There's also a knockout white-grape variety from northwestern Spain called Albarino. Crisp and citrusy, it's phenomenal with green-tomatillo sauces spiked with fresh chiles.
Wines that are high in acid stay bright in the mouth. Like a sharp knife, the acidity in the wine cuts through even the most extroverted spicy flavors, leaving the diner on that wonderful seesaw where a sip of the wine makes you want a bite of the food and a bite of the food makes you want a sip of the wine. Acidity, by the way, isn't found only in white wines. Among the high-acid reds are Spanish Riojas (based on the Tempranillo grape), Italian Chiantis (based on Sangiovese), and French Pinot Noirs.
The second category includes wines that possess a plush, thick mouth feel. At the conference, for example, chefs and food experts agreed that Beringer's North Coast Zinfandel, with its massive fruit flavors, was sensational with a dramatic, earthy red-chile adobo sauce. The same held true for Penfolds' Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz from Australia. The thick, supersupple, superberried flavors of this wine were like a soft cushion for the robust seasonings to dance upon.
What doesn't work particularly well with Mexican flavors is the most popular white variety in America: Chardonnay. The oaky, toasty character of most Chardonnays fights with the complexity of Mexican dishes so that in the end, the wine ends up tasting coarse and bitter. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot don't fare much better, as both of these red wines contain a lot of tannin -- the compound in the skins of certain grapes that gives wine structure but can also make it taste tight and dry. When tannin hits the flavor of chiles, it sets your mouth on fire, and you end up missing all the complexities of the food.
In the final analysis, boldly flavorful dishes need boldly flavored wines.