Monday, June 25, 2012

The Quest to Pair Wine with Mexican Food

Recently, Clare and I had the challenge of pairing wine with a four course Mexican dinner.  It was truly a challenge, because the beverage most associated with Mexican cuisine is beer, not wine.  The association is reinforced by the prominence of Corona, Dos Equis, Modelo and Tecate.  However, Mexico does have its own vineyards and winemakers. There is Cavas Valmar, located in Ensenada, where Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo grapes.  There is also Casa Madero, which raises Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in Parras Valley of Coahuila. The only problem is that we could not find any wines from either Cavas Valmar or Casa Madero.  

Therefore, Clare and I had to find wines from other countries to pair with Mexican dishes. Fortunately, there are some useful guides on the Internet, such as the Rick Bayless' Guide to Classic Mexican Food and Wine. These guides provided some good, general rules that are applicable not only to Mexican cuisine, but to other cuisines.  The most significant rule is to look beyond the protein or principal ingredient.  Pairing wine to Mexican dishes requires one to move beyond the white wine for chicken and red wine for beef.  The reason is that Mexican dishes are defined more by the sauces than by the proteins or vegetables.  Therefore, it is more important to pair the wines to the flavors in the sauce than it is to match the wine to the main ingredient.  (This is also helpful for pairing wines with cuisines that use a lot of sauces, like Italian cuisine.) 

Famille Bougrier Château du Jaunay Muscadet Sèvre et Maine (2010)
Paired with Ceviche

The first course was ceviche.  To make this dish, the fish has to be "cooked" in citrus juice, usually lemon or lime juice.  Other ingredients -- such as jalapenos, avocados and cilantro -- also contribute to the dish and, thus, they have to be taken into account when it comes to finding the right wine.  After doing some research, we narrowed the possible categories to Albariño, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc.

However, Clare and I went with a completely different wine.  We chose the Château du Jaunay Muscadet Sèvre et Maine.  The name has two components.  First, Muscadet is a white grape varietal, although its actual name is the Melon de Bourgogne.  Second, the phrase "Sèvre et Maine" refers to the two rivers that intersect in the region where the grape grows ... the western part of the Loire Valley near the city of Nantes in the Pays de la Loire region.

The Muscadet Sèvre et Maine is located near the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean, both of which have a profound impact upon the wine.  The region has the coldest, wettest growing season of any region in France.  These conditions are hardly the best for cultivating vines.  As a result, winemakers would keep part of their wine "sur lies," or on the lees.  ("Lees" are dead yeast cells).  This wine would remain sur lies until the following March.  This resulted in a creamier mouthfeel and a more complex flavor.

This particular Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, is produced by La Famille Bougrier, a well established winemaker and vineyard.  The Château du Jaunay is a dry white wine that is smooth, light and crisp body, as well as a fair amount of acidity.  The principal flavor component of this wine is lime, which is a good trait for pairing this Muscadet with seafood.  For this reason, we thought that the lime flavors of the wine would complement the lime and lemon juice used to make the ceviche.  

Luc Pirlet Reserve Syrah Mourvedre (2010)
Paired with Tamale Pie

The second course, tamale pie, presented a completely different pairing challenge.  The recipe for tamale pie had three aspects that had to be taken into account.  First, it called for ingredients such as roasted poblano peppers and onions, as well as pinto beans and goat cheese.  Second, the recipe called for spices like cumin seeds and chile powder.  Third, the recipe called for a tomato sauce.  At the outset, these considerations called for a red wine.  The only question is which one.  We initially identified three wines: Zinfandel, Primitivo and Grenache.

The last one, Grenache, got us to thinking.  The idea was to find a fruit forward, fairly earthy wine that would reflect the earthy nature of the tamale pie.  However, we did not want a wine that would be too tannic or overpowering.  French wines tend to have a subtler, fruit-forward character without the tannins that come with some other wines.  So we decided to focus on French wines, especially blends, such as a blend of Grenache and Syrah, or a blend of Syrah with Mourvèdre.

We found a Syrah/Mourvèdre blend that is a reserve wine from Luc Pirlet.  The wine comes from the Pays D'Oc, which is a basically a name for the Languedoc. The exact blend of the Luc Pirlet Reserve is 60% Syrah and 40% Mourvèdre. Each grape is reflected in this wine. The Syrah provides the fruit flavors, which are reminiscent of strawberries.  While strawberries would not normally be the best element to pair with a tamale pie, the Mourvèdre brings those fruit down to earth, figuratively and literally.  The Mourvèdre provides an earthy aroma to the wine, as well as a good amount of minerality and spiciness to this wine.  Although the fruit definitely has its place, it still takes a back seat to the stone and earthiness of the wine.  This combination of the two grapes in this wine seemed like a good pairing for a very earthy dish such as tamale pie.

Vecordia Roble Ribera del Duero (2009)
Paired with "Taco Extravaganza"

This third course presented a whole different challenge.  Guests were given the ability to create their own tacos, choosing from chipotle shrimp, spicy skirt steak and carnitas.  In addition, there would be corn salsa, and a smoky two chille salsa that incorporated chipotles and guajillo chiles.  So there were a range of ingredients and flavors.  However, the one common feature that seemed to cover all of the aspects to the "Taco Extravaganza" is the smokiness contributed by the ancho, chile and guajillo peppers. 

For this dish, we narrowed the wine styles to a Tempranillo, Malbec or Ribero del Duero.  We ultimately chose a Ribero del Duero, the Vecordia Roble (2009).  A Ribera del Duero is a wine produced with the Tinta Fino grape, a local varietal grown in a very specific part of Castille y Leon that has been declared a denominación de origen. The winegrowing region is on a plateau, surrounded by mountain ranges, divided by the Duero River.  The climate is subject to extremes, very hot summers and very cold winners.  

Despite the extremes of the climate, Ribera del Duero wines find themselves in the middle.  For example, the Vecordia Roble strikes a balance between spice and fruit.  The medium-bodied wine conveys spice and pepper up front, but, as the wine opens, the fruit flavors become more prominent and even include a little vanilla in the finish.  For the "Taco Extravaganza," we thought that the spice and pepper in this wine would provide a good complement to the smokey flavors provided by the ancho and chipotle peppers used both in making the proteins and the salsas.

Gruet Blanc de Noirs
Paired with Watermelon and Pineapple Fruit Ice

The final course was a choice between watermelon fruit ice and pineapple fruit ice.  This dish basically combines fruit, simple syrup, and water.  The fruit ice calls for a light wine, as opposed to a heavy dessert wine.  We thought that the best pairing would be a sparkling wine.  Prosecco and Cava immediately came to mind, as did Champagne.  However, because this was a Mexican dinner, I wanted to get a wine that was made from grapes and/or by winemakers near Mexico.

Gruet is a French winemaker that planted vines and began to produce wines in the hills and mountains of New Mexico. Gruet focused the plantings on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.  The vineyards are at some of the highest elevations for growing grapes in the United States.  The elevations provide for hot days, but cool nights, which help slow the maturation process.  Gruet uses the Method Champenoise to produce its New Mexican sparkling wines.

We had two such wines to choose from ... a standard sparkling wine or a Blanc de Noirs.  We chose the latter, the Blanc de Noirs.  This is a little of a stretch as a pairing, but I really wanted to try a Blanc de Noirs. The term, "Blanc de Noirs," is a reference to the fact that this sparkling wine is made from the black Pinot Noir grape. 

The Gruet Blanc de Noirs is aged for at least two years.  The aging process helps to produce a wine that, when poured, creates a creamy mousse of bubbles in a light pink to golden wine.  The aromas have been described in a variety of ways, but generally include apple components.  The apple carries over to the flavor of the wine, which also has a lemon component in the finish.

In the end, we chose four wines that have different styles, different grapes and interesting backgrounds.  Each one paired very well with the dishes prepared by our friends.  Maybe we are getting the hang of this wine pairing thing.  Until next time ...

ENJOY!

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