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Mexican Cuisine

Food, Spices & Wine

Like Indian cuisine, Mexican cuisine is best-known for its heat. Mexican heat comes from several varieties of chili peppers native to Mexico and surrounding areas.

Chili peppers vary in heat and flavor and add a unique taste to most authentic Mexican dishes. Mexican food often gets confused with simple Tex-Mex fare however, and the commercial success of taco franchises and so-called Mexican restaurants has only added to the confusion. Cheesy nachos, burritos and enchiladas covered in hot sauce are not authentic Mexican dishes.

mexican-3True Mexican cuisine is much more sophisticated than this and combines a myriad of ingredients that work together to complement one another.

Oaxaca chicken mole with chocolate and cilantro (right) contains more than 20 ingredients and is as complex as any ethnic specialty.

Fresh ingredients like cilantro, tomatoes, chili peppers, beans, meat and citrus all lend a hand in creating colorful, delicious dishes that pair beautifully with certain wines.

Acid Test

The robust taste of Mexican food is best paired with smooth, crisp wines that have a balanced level of acidity. These include Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, and German Riesling. Acidity levels in reds like Chianti and Pinot Noir work pair quite well with chili based sauces.

mexican-1As with most so-called spicy cuisines, look for a wine with a touch of residual sugar. The sweetness helps cut the heat, but acidity levels, bitterness and a touch of fruit can manage the kick of spicy Mexican food.

Fruity Zinfandels work well with most chili sauces, as do wines made from Sangiovese grapes. Their acidity levels suit the acidity levels of the tomatoes. Zinfandels and Australian Cabernets and Shiraz (above) are often paired with the complex flavors of mole - chocolate included.

Chardonnay should be avoided, as it will end up too bitter on the palette. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot will amplify heat, as their tannins will increase the level of heat from the chilies - all but drowning out the flavor of the dish.

Mixed Marriage

Spicier seafood dishes pair well with crisp, refreshing wines that will work with the level of spice in the food. Wine made from Spain's Verdejo grapes are an excellent option. Most light Spanish and Italian red wines could be considered as well, except those that are at the very top or bottom of the spectrum. Bolder wines mask delicate flavors and lighter whites like Soaves and Sauvignon Blanc broaden flavors, without masking subtle herbs and spices.

mexican-2Lighter reds like Pinot Noir and Barbera will add depth without taking over. Classic Mexican paella pairs beautifully with Sonoma's red Zinfandel (right), and Portugal's native red Tinta Pinheira and Duoro.

In other words, mix it up a bit.

Mexican cuisine often delivers strong citrus notes. Citrus and most reds and oaked whites do not get along, but citrus and Sauvignon Blanc pair well.

Cheesier dishes require a no nonsense wine that will cut through the fat. Look for acidic wines like German Rieslings, whose low alcohol content, residual sugar and slight fruit will not only cut the fat, but curb heat also.