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Bold Mexican dishes deserve bold wines
By John H. Isacs

I grant that Mexico is a nation famous for beer, tequila and mezcal, but the case for pairing wine with Mexican dishes has merit.

Beer at its best is a neutral partner, neither hurting nor helping dishes, including Mexican dishes. Tequila is best positioned as a digestif, in other words, an after-dinner drink.

However, when a wine is skillfully partnered with Mexican dishes, the two become mutually embellishing. I am not alone in this belief, as a diplomat friend of mine living in Mexico City informs me that the top restaurants are increasingly promoting the role of wines as complementary partners to their best dishes.

Some basics

Let's start with two fundamental food and wine pairing canons. Heavily flavored foods need bold wines. Pairings are most successful when a wine either parallels or contrasts the flavors and texture of food.

In general the flavors in most Mexican dishes are bold, so extroverted and audacious wines are most appropriate. Forget about your complex and delicate old Burgundies or majestic aged Bordeaux reds, since the finer characteristics of these mature wines are overwhelmed by most Mexican fare.

Also there's no need to be afraid of spiciness imparted by Mexico's beloved chili peppers. As I've fervently expounded in prior columns, chilies are not the natural enemy of wines. They merely represent a challenge.

Stay away from overly tannic wines or wines where sensations of alcohol are more overt mas these qualities tend to heighten sensations of spiciness. Conversely, fruitiness and sweetness in wine tend to mitigate heat sensations in the mouth.

When choosing the right wine for your Mexican dish, pair the wine with the sauce.

Many Mexican dishes are defined by their sauce, so if the sauce features fresh green chilies, then your best choice for a wine would be fresh white wine with good fruit.

The acidity of the wine mirrors the acidity of the green chili sauce while the fruit augments the flavors of the dish. Good wine varietals for these dishes are Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Albarino wines. As these fresh white wines should be served well-chilled or about 8 Celsius, the temperature of the wine also assuages the spiciness in your palate.

Mexican dishes that feature dried red chili peppers are usually best with a fruity red wine. Pick a ripe robustly flavored and fruity red wine with soft tannins like a Zinfandel from California, Shiraz from Barossa, South Australia or Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina. If the dish contains meat and is quite spicy then a concentrated, off-sweet Amarone from Veneto, Italy, will work well but make sure you serve it at about 16 Celsius so the alcohol component of the wine is not aggressive.

One of the best Mexican food and wine pairings I've experienced was on Thanksgiving many years ago when I was stuck at Los Angeles airport on my way from Taipei to my family home in Connecticut.

A kind-hearted, wine-loving Mexican friend took pity on me and rescued me from the horror of an airport hotel Thanksgiving dinner by inviting me to his family feast.

We dined on a Mexican classic, turkey mola paired with a Frog's Leap Zinfandel. It was a magical pairing that almost made me forget I didn't make it home. Mole is a sauce used in many of Mexico's iconic dishes.

The sauce comes in numerous versions and the one I enjoyed in LA contained over 30 ingredients with two of the most important being chilies and chocolate. The chocolate is not sweet and complements the other ingredients, offering a richness to the flavor and texture of the sauce.

The Frog's Leap Zinfandel was a perfect partner as it had plenty of elegant dark fruit flavors as well as hints of mocha. I haven't had the opportunity to savor turkey mola since then, but that wonderful combination still deliciously dances in my head.

Mexican wine

Believe it or not, Mexico not only has a wine industry but it's the oldest in the Americas. Soon after his conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521, Hernan Cortes and his celebrating troops were running out of the wine they brought over from Spain.

Therefore it's hardly surprising that one of his first acts as governor was to order the planting of vines. Historically, one can make an argument that this was probably Cortes's most noble act as conquistador and governor.

Hacienda San Lorenzo was founded in 1597 making it the first commercial winery in the Americas. The winery still exists today under the name Casa Madero and is one of Mexico's most important producers.

Other commercial wineries soon followed and the wines of Mexico became more popular than the often travel-weary Spanish wines and, as a result, the Spanish King Charles II banned wine production in Mexico.

Despite these protectionist edicts from the overloads in Spain, dissenter producers continued to covertly produce wines. One of most important was the Jesuit priest Juan Ugarte who was the first to plant vines and make wine in the Baja California peninsula in northern Mexico.

Over the centuries, a combination of turmoil, politics and weather, as well as a predilection for beer and tequila, retarded the progress of the Mexican wine industry.

However, in the 1980s new investment and better understanding of local terrior witnessed a welcome period of growth, particularly in terms of quality. Regions that had cool evening temperatures due to altitude or ocean breezes started making increasingly impressive wines that garnered attention from wine critics and started winning a few prizes at international competitions.

The northern area of Mexico that includes Baja California now accounts for about 90 percent of production but the elevated areas of central Mexico are also making interesting wines, in particular sparkling wines.

I've tasted some of the Mexican sparklers from the Spanish giant Freixenet and they're quite nice. Larger established wineries still account for the lion's share of production, with some of the better producers being Casa Medero, Bodega Ferrine, Vinos Cetto and Bodegas de Santo Tomas.

Some of most exciting wines are being made by recently established boutique producers.

These include Casa de Piedra, Vina de Liceaga and Casa Adobe Guadalupe.

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