Which wines work well with a plate of juicy carnitas or a carne asada burrito? We asked 17 sommeliers for their advice.
Watch the ABV and the Spice
"My pairing advice for wine and Mexican food is to stay away from high-alcohol wines at all cost, especially if you take pride in your high tolerance for the Scoville scale of 50,000 and above. Because the flavors and preparations for Mexican cuisines are very diverse and the proteins can range from raw/cured (ceviche) to heavily charred (carne asada), to rich and complex (mole), the best way to conquer them with one easy sweep will be bubbles. I recommend to stay with the bright and dry style if you are trying to pair with lighter preparation (such as mariscos and verde sauces), use the richer and more toasty sparkling to go against the grilled proteins, and use the rosé bubbles to balance out the tomato based dishes and dark mole. Remember, the richer and deeper the flavors are, the older vintages of bubbles the better! And there is something about Champagne with eggs and corn that just work wonders, which makes chilaquiles and huevos rancheros that much more appealing.
If you prefer food on the more tame and manageable side, and the salsa's not too hot, I would pair Rioja Tinto with your carne asada burrito. I would stay within a "Reserva" level: you really want a youthful red that would accentuate the caramelized protein without too much barrel treatment to distract from the star of the dish. If you like your burrito hot, I would seek out older vintages of German Riesling. The older the better because the wine tends to develop wonderful savory notes and weight that cab withstand the "animalistic" quality of carne asada at the same time, soothe the heating sensation on the palate."—Arthur Hon, Sepia (Chicago)
Sparkling and Fruit
"Great question! When Rosemary Gray and I were putting together a teeny list for Salvation Taco, with Chef April Bloomfield's version of Mexican food, we tried tons of sparkling wine up against the food. There's something about the bubbles with the spicy food that refreshes in the same way that beer does, for me. Trust me: sparkling is a great way to not take the pairing of Mexican wine too precious, but it's also friggin delicious. Sparkling with a good amount of fruit, whites with a full body and fruit-forward nature, as well as low-tannin, low-ish alcohol reds with bouncy, juicy fruit. The fruit is the thing—it stands up to the spice. Also, beware of tannins and alcohol—spicy food can often heighten both of those things."—Carla Rzeszewski, The Spotted Pig, The Breslin, The John Dory Oyster Bar (NYC)
Think About Preparation
"Mexican food is so diverse in the use of spices that I like to think about the base flavors in the dish, as well as the cooking technique, as a guide to my pairings. Dishes that are lightly prepared with jalapeños, cilantro and lime juice tend to work with high acid white wines, maybe something with a hint of residual sugar, depending on the overall heat level of the dish. A recent favorite of mine is The Ned Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, especially when paired with prawns. When we start moving into richer spices, like cumin, coriander and chili pepper, I like to up the weight and intensity of the wine. If we are still in white meat territory I might try something like a Gewürtraminer or perhaps move into a lighter red wine, like a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Navarro Gewürztraminer from Anderson Valley and Soter’s North Valley bottling of Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley are two that fit the bill for me.
With carnitas, I would like a wine that has ripe fruit, to complement the sweetness that the meat takes on with this cooking technique, as well as high acid, to cut through the fat. You could certainly try a dry Vouvray from the Loire Valley, or a fruity Grenache/Syrah blend, like a lighter weight Côtes du Rhône. For red meat with spice, such as a carne asada burrito, I want something that is fruity and refreshing, like a lighter weight Malbec. The Crios line from Susana Balbo is a great value.
One notoriously difficult dish to pair with is mole. Again, because there is such a great diversity in this dish, I like to look toward the base of the dish, in this case, what peppers are being highlighted? For moles that utilize dark, smoky dried peppers, like ancho or pasilla, I like to look for wines with lots of fruit in the mid-palate to stand up to the rich flavors, as well as some savory notes to complement the smoky elements in the mole. Sicilian wines are usually up to the challenge here, as they have great ripeness of fruit yet are surprisingly fresh on the finish, with savory herbal undertones. I would try Nero d’Avola, especially from the Cusumano winery."—Caryn Benke, Andina Restaurant (Portland, OR)
Think About the Garnishes
"Here is one great way to explore wine and Mexican cuisine: Be the garnish. One thing you’ll see in every Mexican restaurant in the country—the ubiquitous squeeze of lime. So seek out a refreshing and lime-driven Sauvignon Blanc, Viura, Muscadet or dry Riesling. The surprise is that the acidity in the wine will act somewhat like that lime wedge—turbo-charging flavors and creating the kind of mouth drama that sets you up for the next bite. The flavors of the wine will make sense in context of the dish—and if you have a particularly herbal white with citrus flavors (some NZ and Loire Valley Sauvignon Blancs come to mind), you might even endeavor to leave the lime wedge on the plate and possibly brush that bushel of cilantro aside to really see the potential of wine with Mexican food.
Another thing that I look for: salsas that employ tropical fruit. If there is a mango or pineapple salsa involved, head to a white wine with a lot of tropical flavors. If there is ever a place to justify a tropical style of Chardonnay, it’s with the tropical fruit salsa...(I should also include some new-world Viogniers in that thought.)
As for red wines—tannin can be the enemy. For that carne asada burrito, head toward a new-world style Garnacha or Tempranillo from Spain, but skip anything labeled Crianza or beyond. We don’t want the oak—we just want that pure and fresh fruit expression. There will be enough palate weight to hang with the meat, but not the disruption of barrel notes or tannin to wreck the groove. You want a wine that will join the party and not change the mood.
Of course, it's hard not to mention Rosé. And if you’re sharing a table of varied plates, don’t overthink it. Get a delicious rosé from Navarra, or just about anywhere...You’ll never order a fruit flavored Margarita again."—Chris Horn, Purple Cafe (Bellevue/Seattle)Continue to 5 of 17 below.
Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier
"Mexican dishes are already balanced with complex sauces, but the wine can bring out elements in the sauce that you enjoy the most. For preparations with lots of cheese, a fruity dry white can help you get though the richness. A Sauvignon Blanc is your best match. The Craggy Range from Martinborough is a great choice, the lime zest and grapefruit would also complement a nice ceviche that may order as a starter. When the peppers come out to play, including the spiciest of habeneros, I usually like a Viognier that is tropical and slightly sweet to chill my palate as I eat. When it comes to carne asada, I like a nice fruity and full red. A Bonarda or Malbec can be a great choice. The Tikal Natural is a wonderful organic pick from Mendoza."—Natalie Tapken, El Toro Blanco, Lure, and Burger & Barrel (NYC)
Moscato d'Asti, Torrontes, or Mexican Wine!
"When pairing with Mexican, I like to first think about the sauce and accompaniments. When dealing with a dish with a lot of spice, I'd look for something with a bit of sweetness. German riesling works, but I love to change it up and give people Moscato d'Asti. Things with bubbles are fun and well-made Moscato is a real treat! Elio Perrone and La Spinetta are favorite producers.
With something more earthy and rich like mole, I like to go for reds with a dense chocolatey core and not too much tannin. Australian Shiraz and California Zinfandel are reliable matches. With classic carnitas tacos, you'll likely be dealing with pico de gallo, citrus, and maybe guacamole or sour cream. Mirror the acidity with a clean, crisp Torrontes from Argentina or a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Totally refreshing, like the vinous equivalent of Corona with lime! Or for an authentic twist, do a little hunting and find a Mexican wine (yes, they are making good wine in Mexico!) from the Guadalupe Valley. Stick with Sauvignon Blanc and try the Casa de Peidra with fish tacos, or hunt down a full-flavored red for your mole."—Lauren Collins, L’Espalier (Boston)
Gruner, Sparkling Rosé, Northern Rhone Syrah
"Yikes. I will admit, I tend to drink mezcal with Mexican food. If I were pressed to come up with some good pairings for a burrito, I would point to good (read: not in a liter bottle) Gruner Veltliner, or maybe a Loire petillant rosé from someone like Francois Chidane or the rosé sparkler from Daumas Gassac...something with some RS, acid, and yeast to play around the spice, beans, rice, and meats you're getting in the burrito.
A plate of carnitas and tortillas might want for some dry/off dry Chenin Blanc (like Baudry or Foreau), or something like the off-dry Furmint from Kiralyudvar's ultra-bright 2010 vintage.
Some of the richer dishes, and particularly those employing more roasted meats and chipotle peppers, bring some of the lighter expressions of Northern Rhone Syrah to mind, like those from Faury and Hervé Souhaut.
It really all comes down to the same thing with any kind of wine pairing. Consider the weight of your dish, the texture, the acid, the sugar, the overall character of the dish, and any subtle aspects that you might want to play at in the dish. The wines will begin to become obvious. Some will work and some will work less. And sometimes the long-shot will really surprise you."—Collin Casey, Namu Gaji (San Francisco)
Fruit and Smoke
"For spicy tacos, you need a ripe rich wine high in fruit content like Zinfandel, still wines from Portugal, Grenache, and Syrah blends, Cote du Rhone, Gigondas or Cornas. What's a great wine to drink with a carne asada burrito? This dish has a bit of smokiness to it so a ripe rich red like Zinfandel from California: Mauritson Rockpile Ridge Zinfandel, Rockpile, California 2009."—Molly Wismeier, Restaurant R’evolution (New Orleans)Continue to 9 of 17 below.
Gruner or Sauvignon Blanc
"Pacifico with lime is best. But the second best beverage in a bottle would be a fruit forward Gruner Veltliner or Sauvignon Blanc. You basically want to find something that has some sort of ripe green fruit notes but also has some kind of acid. I usually like to drink something that has similar flavors to that of a margarita. You probably think I'm loco but it all makes sense when you try it. Trust me. If not I owe you a taco."—Josiah Baldivino, Michael Mina (San Francisco)
"I like a sparkling wine or a crisp citrusy white, such as Vinho verde from Portugal. And always, what most Sommeliers agree: Champagne goes with everything."—Lee Spires, AQUA by El Gaucho (Seattle)
Dry Muscat, Grenache
"Mexican food presents many challenges given the nature of the spice and citrus components. I would stick with high acid, aromatic whites to create a counterpoint to the spices and citrus present in many starters (i.e. guacamole, salsas, ceviches). The Botani Moscatel Seco (Dry Muscat) from the Southern tip of Spain would be a great partner here with its forward floral aromatics and orchard fruit. With dishes incorporating braised meats, look for more assertive reds that can stand up to the deep flavor profiles that are developed. More restrained examples from Priorat, Spain with the dark, spicy fruit profile of Grenache (in conjunction with other blended varietals) will work in nicely (look for Serras del Priorat, the 3rd label of the legendary estate Clos Figueras)."—Ehren Ashkenazi, The Modern (NYC)
Low Tannin, High Acid
"With Mexican food, or any with a lot of spicy or hot flavors, it’s always best to look for wines with low tannin and high acidity. So there are a lot of options. Any light-bodied reds like Pinot or Gamay Noir or Grenache made with a delicate hand, but there may be even more options with whites. A sparkiling Vouvray (Chenin Blanc) would be great with both, offering refreshing white-flower and honeysuckle aromas, a touch of off-dry flavors to balance any spiciness and brisk acidity to cleanse your palate."—Ian Becker, Absinthe Group (San Francisco)Continue to 13 of 17 below.
"Try something new, red and from the Americas. Take a chance with Carmenere from Chile or a Valdiguie from Russian River."—Gerardo Acevedo-Vanni, Bocanova (Oakland)
Get Jammy With It
"The spicier the dish, the less complex and less dry your wine should be. You don't want to waste complex wine on numbed palate. The sweetness of the wine acts like a fire extinguisher to the spiciness of the dish. With a carne asada burrito, I would go with jammy Zinfandel, luscious Malbec or Australian Shiraz. Carnitas tacos would go well with elegant, soft Pinot Noir."—Oz Podnar, BLT Fish (NYC)
"With Mexican food, I like to drink fresh white wines to contrast the hot, spicy profile of the food—for example, a bone-dry Riesling from the Rheingau in Germany. It refreshes and cleanses the palate, and reveals the personality of both the wine and dish with every sip."—Edouard Bourgeois, Café Boulud (NYC)
Beaujolais, Schiava, Mencia
"If you're eating a Carne Asada burrito, think about fresh and fruit-driven wines for the contrast. These will bring a sensation of freshness and immediate fruit. Great wine to drink here would be Cru Beaujolais, Alto Adige reds such as Schiava. Carnitas tacos are great with slightly more incisive wines. Try Rossese from Italy, or muscular Mencia. Mexican food should be paired with lively, playful wines but showing some structure."——Adrien Falcon, Bouley (NYC)Continue to 17 of 17 below.
Pinot or Syrah
"Pair earthy Pinot Noir such as red Burgundy with carnitas tacos. Delicious, earthy, and brightly acidic. With a carne asada burrito, try something from the Rhône. A smoky Syrah would be a great choice. I love Château St. Cosme Cote-Rotie 2006."—Amy Goldberger, Fifth Floor (San Francisco)