What’s a Good Wine for Mexican Food?

What's a Good Wine for Mexican Food?psd

There’s no sangria at Topolobampo, Rick Bayless’ splendid upscale Mexican restaurant in Chicago. Wine choices run more to boutique Syrahs and Zinfandels.

Those are unusual recommendations for a menu heavy on spicy food. The knee-jerk reaction would be sweetish Rieslings or Gewurtztraminers. But they’re choices chef-owner Bayless has considered carefully.

“There’s nothing wrong with beer or sparkling wine or even sweet wines,” says Bayless, who also owns the adjacent, more casual Frontera Grill. “But there is a more sophisticated way to deal with chile flavors.”

In fact, it was while living in Southern California in the early ’80s, consulting for the El Paso Cantina restaurant company, that Bayless began his research into pairing chiles and wine.

“I really got my feet firmly planted in the chile world when I was living in L.A., and that was the same time I began exploring wine,” says Bayless. “I like both of them equally well.”

Many factors should be considered when pairing wine with Mexican food, Bayless says, and chile heat is just one.

“First of all, there is a huge acid component to Mexican cooking, and you can’t ignore that. Sweet wines and acidic ingredients are horrible together; the acid just throws off the wine totally. If you’re serving ceviche, you’ve got to have a highly acidic wine, maybe a Sauvignon Blanc, and not a real floral one either.

“Rieslings and so forth do pair well with a certain class of dishes, things like certain moles where there is a sweetness in the dish. We make a duck in mole with dried fruit, and my very favorite wine with that is a Gewurtztraminer or Riesling, but not a sweet one. Our moles are much more moderated in sweetness than grocery store moles, and we need a wine that gives you an impression of sweetness without any actual sweetness.”

But for most chile-based foods, Bayless favors red wine, and not just any red wine.

“What you’re looking for,” he says, “is a red wine that falls into a pretty specific category. You want a red wine with a fair amount of youth and fruit to marry well with the up-front flavors of the chile sauce.

“You want a wine that’s low in tannin, because tannins don’t do well at all with spice. It makes the dish taste more spicy, and chile makes wine taste more tannic.

“It shouldn’t be high in alcohol. When you have high alcohol and spicy food, the food makes the raw alcohol taste linger in your mouth. It’s not a pleasant thing at all.

“And the wine should have a fair amount of acid to it, because you need that respite. When you take a bite of really flavorful food that fills your mouth with all of these individual characteristics, your mouth is aglow. When you take a taste of wine, you need something to cut through it all so you can start again. The acidity in the wine gives structure to the whole experience.”

Two main grape varieties fit that flavor profile. First is California Zinfandel, but, Bayless is careful to note, the new-fashioned, lighter Zinfandels. (“Those old-fashioned Zinfandels California made 10 or 15 years ago were so high in alcohol they were horrid,” he says. “How did we ever drink those things?”) He also likes California Syrahs.

“One thing I like about both of these wines with this kind of food is that they have a certain spiciness that mirrors what’s going on in the food. Syrahs and Zins–particularly if they’re made from older vines–also have a fairly concentrated flavor, and that matches the concentration of flavor that’s on the plate.”

The only European wine Bayless singles out is Tempranillo, the main grape of the upper Rioja region in Spain: “It’s not as fruity as the first two, but it is very high in acidity, and it’s usually aged in wood, so there’s this woody component I like.”

Pinot Noir will work with some dishes, but Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlots, the most popular grapes in America, are pariahs in Bayless’ restaurants. “They are the worst matches to our food ever,” he says. “Chardonnay because it tends to have a little too much oak and butter, and Cabernet because it’s got too much tannin. They’re just not right for us at all.”


(Carne Asada al Guajillo)

6 cloves garlic, unpeeled

16 guajillo chiles (about 1/4 pound), stemmed and seeded

1 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/8 teaspoon cumin

3 2/3 cups beef broth, plus more if needed

2 1/2 tablespoons oil


1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

6 (6-ounce) beef steaks, such as tenderloin, New York strip or sirloin, each about 1 inch thick

1 large red onion, sliced 1/2 inch thick


The basic guajillo chile sauce used in this recipe can be used for many dishes. Try tossing it with fried tortilla chips, some white cheese, some cilantro and some chopped white onion for a quick appetizer.

Roast garlic directly on ungreased griddle or heavy skillet over medium heat, turning occasionally until soft (garlic will blacken in spots), about 15 minutes. Cool and peel.



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