The Best Wine with Mexican Food Pairings
The Best Wine with Mexican Food Pairings

Wild Rooster Bistro is a casual but vibrant cafe located in Fair Oaks, California, and a humble example of Mexican food with a twist done well. Homestyle meals at affordable prices draw customers in, as does the overall warm environment. Mexican food signatures are also offered in vegan and vegetarian plates, with enchiladas, tacos, and quesadillas as the crowd pleasers. But as much as some reviews have acclaimed the cafe, one way it’s missing out? Making the best of the flavors with wine pairings.

To be sure, Wild Rooster Bistro does, in fact, offer wine–it’s just that the selection is a bit limited. One review noted that while the food and environment itself deserves praise, the drink menu is not yet fully optimized. So here’s to hoping they’ll be adding more wine options in the future.

But does wine pairings really existed for Mexican food? And what are the best options? In this article, we’ll discuss some basics when it comes to understanding both signature Mexican food flavors and the key to selecting the best wine pairings.

What are the main flavors of Mexican food?

Mexican food, as a whole, consists of spicy and slightly sweet, toned down herbaceous flavors for a zesty and bold taste to most of its dishes. But the key here is Mexican food is very much about balance–hot notes are balanced by more neutral staples, just as beans, rice and tortillas, and given a nice rounded experience by adding some creamy or fresh element–whether it’s cheese, cream, or fresh salsa.

Some of the primary traditional ingredients that go into a majority of Mexican food dishes include:

  • Garlic and onions: Garlic and onions are used both fresh and in powdered forms, garlic and onions go into nearly every Mexican dish. These ingredients are most commonly found in seasoning, salsa, and Spanish rice.
  • Chile powder: Chile powder is usually a mix of cumin, chili powder, and some type of herb, often oregano. Meats, vegetables, and sauces all make use of chili powder. There is also Ancho chile powder, which features smoky jalapeno but also tastes slightly sweet, making it popular not only for savory but also for sweet food and beverages such as Mexican hot chocolate.
  • Other spices include cocoa (used to make mole sauce); cinnamon, cloves, anise, cumin, cilantro, and oregano.

Herby notes are typically more fresh and subdued, with spicy flavors taking lead, but with ingredients such as cocoa, cinnamon, and cloves, there are definitely sweet components to Mexican food as well.

What are some staples of Mexican food?

Accompanying those flavors are some of the staples of Mexican food, which include a variety of starches and vegetables which serve as a canvas of sorts for a variety of meals. Corn is incredibly important, and used to make tortillas, and is also found in enchiladas, quesadillas, and tacos, as well as some salads, dips, and sides.

Tomatoes are nearly as important or just as much so in some ways, adding bright and sweet to succulent or even smoky notes to dishes. Salsa, sauces, freshly chopped, stewed are all ways tomatoes are incorporated.

Avocados are used to provide creamy, rich components and help balance salty and spicy flavors. Though most commonly mashed, avocados are also served finely minced with a number of main dishes.

Beans, of course, are another staple. Red, black, yellow and even purple beans are popular. Beans and rice accompany many main meals, often alongside a protein such as chicken or fish.

What are the main protein sources in Mexican food?

Since so many entrees include beans, beans are undoubtedly an important protein source in Mexican food, and also a nice option for vegetarians. Cheese is another source, though less rich in protein. As far as meat, many things are on the menu, including pork, chicken, and beef. Meat is often roasted or shredded and couples with spicy sauces and seasonings. Though less recognized by some, there are Mexican seafood dishes as well, including staples like cod, catfish, bass, crabs, snapper and a variety of shellfish.

One of the most prominent favorites is a spicy sausage, such as chorizo.

What are some of the most popular Mexican food dishes in the United States?

Of course, cuisines are more often than not adaptive, meaning what we eat in the United States is a little different than what is most commonly consumed in Mexico. In fact, though there is a certain level of authenticity, the certain emphasis on different ingredients labels much of the food served here as ‘Tex Mex’. Some of the most popular dishes in the United States include:

  • Burritos, quesadillas, and enchilada. Burritos, enchiladas, and quesadillas involve a tortilla packed with hearty and fresh ingredients. Though the specific fillings and meat can vary, a typical burrito consists of rice, refried beans, and some kind of meat or more beans for a vegetarian option. Common complementary ingredients include salsa, lettuce, sour cream and avocado.
    • Quesadillas can also use flour tortillas but are also known to use corn tortillas as an alternative. While ingredients are simply wrapped (many served warm) in a burrito, in a quesadilla, the tortilla is first toasted with cheese before other ingredients are added, making for a slightly creamier but toasty taste.
    • Enchiladas are made with small corn tortillas and are smothered with a variety of sauces and cheese, though the fillings may be similar to a burrito. Enchiladas, unlike burritos, are always eaten with a fork.
  • Chimichangos. These are actually deep fried burritos and often served with slow roasted beef or pork with peppers, rice, and beans. Cheese, guacamole, and sour cream are common accompaniments. These are thought to originate from the United States rather than Mexico. A Tostado is a deeply fried taco.
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  • Carne Asada: Roasted meat, in this case, beef, is thinly sliced and grilled and marinated. A charred very smoky flavor is most desirable. This is meat served in many dishes, but also alone as an entree.
  • Birria: Though often adapted with other red meat, birria is a Mexican stew featuring roasted peppers and often served alongside corn tortillas.

What is Sangria? And what about beer?

Sangria is popularly thought of as a great accompaniment for Mexican food in general and is a mixed drink consisting of red wine, chopped fruit, and often fruit juice. It’s a sweet, alcoholic punch most often paired with spicy jalapeno flavors and spiced, heavier meats, such as chorizo.

Of course, even if you do enjoy sangria, you still need to know what wine to pair the sweet ingredients with. Using the best red wine possible is important. If you are interested in sangria, be sure to check out our guide.

Beer is commonly consumed with Mexican entrees, but many argue that beer does not highlight the complexity of most Mexican food dishes the way the best wine pairings can.

What should my general approach be when it comes to pairing Mexican food with wine?

As you can see, pairing wine with Mexican food can be a little complicated. When we’re discussing the best wine pairings with a cuisine overall, as opposed to a specific food, such as sushi, salmon or even beef stew, there are a lot of variables. To that end, no single wine pairing is best for all Mexican food.

Exactly what wine you pair a dish with will vary some of the main protein sources, but when generalizing, the best wine pairings with Mexican food are those that complement and balance spicy flavors and seasonings and make them taste and bit brighter and less heavy. Spicy, thick sauces and many times, heavier meats, as well as starchy staples mean that the best wine pairings are those that brighten and lighten Mexican food.

How do I find the best wine pairings with Mexican food?

In order to find the best wine pairings with Mexican food, let’s take a look at several different factors that go into selecting a good wine for this cuisine. We’ll also take other factors into consideration, such as what the main protein source is. As always these suggestions are meant to optimize flavor and the overall dining experience.

How are wine pairings with Mexican food different?

Wine pairings with Mexican food are a bit different for two reasons. For one, Mexican food in general and Tex-Mex tends to involve multiple layers of complexity. For another, and most importantly, there us a certain order to figuring out the best wine Pairing.

Pair with the sauce first. That’s right, the main factor for deciding the best wine pairings should be the sauce itself. Next consideration should be the meat, and finally, the dish overall.

Should I go for red wine or white wine?

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The good and bad news is that the answer is technically both. Both red and white wine pairs well with most Mexican food, in part because most dishes have layers of different flavors. However, there is some distinguishment. If you have red meat, such as beef, as your main protein source, opt for red wine. If you have a dish with white meat, such as chicken or a white fish, white wine works better.

The reason for this rule is that red meat is higher in tannins. Tannins provide bitterness and astringency, but they also present a drying sensation when you drink. Higher tannin levels are a good match for pairing with the richer and more robust natural fats in red meats. White wines, which have comparably low levels of tannins, are more suited for complementing the more delicate flavors and leaner white meats.

However, keep in mind that sauces are your first factor. A smoky dish does best with red wine, while a creamy or citrus-based dish is more suited to white wine. Tomato based sauces are also more suited for red wine, as opposed to green sauces.

Should I go for a sweet or dry wine?

Dry wine, of course, refers to the wine without residual sugars and is tart. In this category as well it depends. Dry wines are paired well with most main dishes, including meat entrees, burritos, sausages, and even soups. However, there are a few times you can opt for a sweet or semi-dry wine:

    1. Choose a sweet wine, if desired, for dishes such as corn and cheese based. Semi-dry wines work as well. Empanadas, for example, fall into this category because they are very starch and cream based.
    2. For a spicy, savory, or chipotle based dish, dry wines make more sense. Grilled meat, cured meats, and spicy rice and seafood dishes are in this category.

How full should the body of the wine be?

For Mexican dishes, you almost always want to again first think about the sauce and seasonings that are accompanying the dish. For lighter dishes featuring fish or chicken and dishes featuring light citrus notes, light-bodied white wine is better. Fuller bodied wines make sense with something heavier, especially dishes heavy on starches and refried beans. Still confused? See below:

  • Light bodied wines, including such as Riesling, Prosecco, and Sauvignon Blanc are suited for chicken and fish tacos, green sauces, and fresh salsas.
  • Medium bodied wines, such as Carménère, Cabernet Franc, and even Gamay are the better way to go for heavier dishes or tomato-based dishes. Examples include carne asada, birria, and enchiladas. Too full of the body can overwhelm the dish and mar the complexity of flavors.

Are there any wines I should avoid?

Plenty. While it’s true that many wines pair decently at least with Mexican food dishes, there are some that are simply a bad choice. Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot are all poor options because they are too high in tannins. Also avoid oak aged wine, which will feel heavy and mask or fight against the herbs and spices in Mexican food.

What about acidity?

When it comes to acidity, it’s a bit simpler. Almost always, bright acidity is a good option. Bright acidity provides a more tart but fresher taste, which pairs well with typical seasonings and spices used in Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine. Medium to high acidity is the way to go, whether you’re reaching for red or white wine.

What flavor notes should I look for?

Again, what flavor notes you should look for depends on the dish in particular. In general, however, Here’s what you need to know:

    1. For red chile sauces, look for wines with dark fruit flavor notes, such as Cabernet Franc and Gamay. Brighter fruit notes work well with a mole.
    2. For cheese or cream-based sauces, bright citrus notes work better. Citrus notes are also better for green chile sauces. Citrus also works for corn and starchy options.
    3. Acceptable undertones with most sauces include herbaceous elements, such as oregano, but avoid anything too briny or earthy.

Can you summarize how to find the best wine pairings with Mexican food?

Since wine pairings with Mexican food and Tex-Mex can get a bit complicated let’s summarize some guidelines.

  • Always pair based upon sauce, then meat. Many times, the sauce and meat that accompanies it will call for the same kind of wine. When there is a conflict, however, the sauce takes precedence.
  • Creamy, green chili and light sauces go well with crisp, light wines high in acidity with citrus flavors
  • Red chile, tomato, and mole sauces require a red wine with moderate acidity. A medium-full wine is more suited to the mole and tomato-based sauces, but red chile sauces do better with a brighter and lighter wine. Look for bright to dark fruit flavors
  • Semi-dry and dry wines work in most cases, but for a sweeter taste, and a bright, light dish like fish tacos with fresh salsa, Prosecco is acceptable.

Can you recommend the best wine pairings for specific dishes?

  1. For Carne Asada, try unoaked Falcone 2017 Syrah. Smoky, fruity, with medium levels of tannins and moderate but established acidity is a great choice for charred meat. Avoid oak aged Syrah and instead go for a wine like this, which pairs black cherry, smoked flavors, sea salt, and caramel.
  2. For seafood tacos in a light sauce or fresh salsa, select Eroica Gold Riesling 2013. Produced in Columbia Valley, this wine pairs bright acidity, ripe citrus peel, and peach with a touch of saffron. The bright energy of this wine works very well with fresh salsa, seafood, and a lighter Mexican dish.
    1. Another option, including for green chili sauces and chicken dishes, is Sauvignon Blanc with bright citrus notes. Elena Walch 2017 Castel Ringberg Sauvignon is one such pairing, with structured grapefruit, peach and just a touch of mineral notes.
  3. For a cheese based dish, such as a quesadilla, consider Torresella Prosecco Brut. This Prosecco is described as ‘fresh and youthful’ but a slight creaminess less common in most Prosecco. Lemon and hints of peach make it a pleasing choice.
  4. For meals with red chili sauces, such as some enchiladas and soups, opt for Jean-Paul Brun Domaine Terres Dorees Morgan 2017.  Gamay is a great wine pairing with red chili sauces, as is the case with this Gamay in particular. A bit more delicate than a Cabernet Franc, it’s still a heavier Gamay with refined elegance to the classic black currant and raspberry notes, which both complement and balance the heat of the sauce.
  5. For Mole, opt for 2015 Olivier Cousin Anjou Pur Breton. Cabernet Franc is suitable for moles because it is a slightly richer red wine, but still with fruit flavors and enough acidity. A variety of ripe fruity flavors with a bit of tang brings out the spicy and sweet tones of a mole.

More Frequently Asked Questions

Are there any low fat, low calorie Mexican dishes?

Yes! There might be a wrong idea about Mexican Food being heavy, but there is actually a whole history of the almost entirely vegetarian and fat-free culture behind the original inhabitant of Mexico. Actually, most of the fats now used in Mexican cuisine were brought by the Spanish Conquest.

What is Mexico’s national drink?

The most iconic Mexican liquor is called Tequila. This spirit is made based in the agave plant, and it is mainly produced surrounding the city of Tequila! Yes, there is a city with that name…Tequila might be a little strong to pair it as a “refreshment beverage” with food (we recommend a good selection of wine or beer), but it might be a good way of finishing a nice Mexican dinner.

Does Mexico produce wine?

Even though Mexico might be best known for its tequila, Mexico do produce wine, especially in Baja California where 90% of Mexican Wine is produced.

Erin Jamieson

Erin Jamieson brings the latest information to you on wine flavors and types so you can enjoy your next glass to the fullest. In the past, she covered wine selections for weddings and engagement parties. She also previously worked with a private chef company to suggest the perfect wine pairings and believes there is a flavor for every occasion. Erin Jamieson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University of Ohio.