In our Ask the Sommelier series, we put your wine-related questions to top sommeliers. In this instalment, Anthony Gopal, head sommelier at Mexican restaurant KOL, advises on the best wine to pair with Mexican food.
‘I love going out for Mexican food, and cooking it at home when I host dinner parties. However, I always find myself drawn to drinking Margaritas or beer. While there’s nothing wrong with that – who doesn’t love a Marg? – I’d really like to find a wine, or wines, that would work with the spice and powerful flavours of my favourite dishes like mole and carnitas.’
Sammy from Manchester, UK
Sommelier Anthony Gopal responds:
‘When you’re pairing wine with Mexican food, more than anything, you should look for something with freshness and lower alcohol. You never want to have high alcohol when you’re thinking about spice, because they amplify each other. So unless you’re a bit of a sadist and you want to set your throat on fire, you don’t want to be drinking 15% ABV with habanero chillies. Trust me, it’s not good.
Mexican food is about salsa, garnishes and lime. There’s always going to be some sort of bright sourness, so you want something with some zip to balance that. Any wine that’s what you would call ‘rounded’ will end up feeling flat compared to the food.
Unless you’re a bit of a sadist and you want to set your throat on fire, you don’t want to be drinking 15% ABV with habanero chillies. Trust me, it’s not good
When pairing wine with Mexican food, freshness is the first thing that springs to mind, but don’t be afraid of intensity. That’s not to say tannins or high alcohol, but things which are aromatic are great and things which have concentration are always good. People think you have to have a really light, dry white wine with anything spicy like Mexican food. But these things just get washed away. If you end up with a Picpoul or whatever, it just turns into water by comparison. So don’t be afraid to drink red wine with spicy, smoky food. Something like a Pinot Noir is great – you’ve got the fruit but you’ve got earthiness and mushroomy flavours. There needs to be some underlying smoke. Pinot Noir is great because you can have the intensity without having high alcohol and high tannins.
What red wine should you pair with Mexican food?
For reds, I’d reach for cool-climate wines with good acidity – so, as mentioned, good, bright Pinot Noirs. I like fresh, Galician reds a lot. Anything with freshness. Something we’re enjoying at the moment is Quinta Da Muradella: it’s an estate in the west of Spain, near the Portuguese border, and they have these fantastic old vine wines. It’s all very fresh in style. The wines are light and floral, but the idea is that they lift flavours up rather than dragging them down. You want something that’s going to refresh your palate.
For pairing with specific dishes, if we’re talking about a traditional black or dark mole or a mole poblano, which is chocolatey in flavour, then you really want a wine with some age. It’s a wonderful opportunity to open something that’s 20 years old, because you’ve got so much earth and mushroom in the wine, it really amplifies what’s going on with the chocolatey-ness in the mole.
What white or orange wine should you pair with Mexican food?
When it comes to whites, if you’re cooking with a bit of sweetness, then you can play with off-dry wines, but I think it’s more interesting to play with aromatic varieties. Rieslings are great, whether that’s German or Alsace with a little bit of sugar. Personally, I like Austrian white wines with Mexican food. For specific bottles, there’s a producer called Clemens Busch, who makes Riesling in the Mosel. It’s biodynamic, but the wines have always got this incredible, bright acidity and they’re very floral. He’s a really iconic producer, whose wines I think people should try.
With something like carnitas, the traditional pork tacos, you can go either way. You can pair it with a Riesling, where you’ve got that great acidity, which is like a classic British pairing of pork and apple. You’ve got fatty pork and a beautiful, fresh green apple Riesling. The wine acts like a garnish in a way; like a salsa. Or you can opt for a fresh red, which works just as nicely.
For orange wine, I like lighter, aromatic orange styles. But then, at KOL, there’s an octopus dish we do which is a bit spicy and there’s a bit of bone marrow in there as well, so with that you can try a Georgian-style orange with a bit of weight.
Can you pair Mexican food with Mexican wine?
In terms of pairing Mexican food with local grape varieties, it’s a tricky one, because most of the grape varieties are international – they’re not really a Mexican expression. We work with Bichi Winery in Baja California, and they have some great forward-thinking wines which are fresh and biodynamic. They’re up in the mountains. In that heat, things can get a bit jammy on the flat land. It’s an interesting landscape, it’s constantly changing and I think it’ll probably develop a lot in the next 10 to 15 years.
Interview by Isabelle Aron