When we think of Cinco de Mayo, most of us think margaritas, beer and lots of Mexican food. If you’re not familiar with the origins of this festive holiday, on the 5th of May in 1862, the Mexican army scored an unlikely victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla. It’s no wonder the Federalistas decided to cap the win with a party, and this May 5 we should all carry on the tradition.
Margaritas and beer are fine, but you can also celebrate Cinco de Mayo with wine! Think about all the complex flavors of Mexican food: slow cooked meats in rich sauces. Herbaceous salsas and guacamole. Burritos, tacos and tamales wrapped in corn. Enchiladas in savory mole sauce – those delicious notes chocolate, cinnamon and anise balanced with just the right amount of heat from the chiles. It’s a wine pairing fiesta!
When selecting wine for your Cinco de Mayo feast, remember these elements and choose according to the fillings.
Chips and salsa, guacamole, and other starters are tricky to pair because of the variations of salt, spice, herbs and heat, but have no fear! There’s a white-grape variety from the northwest of Spain called Albarino that, crisp and citrusy, is phenomenal with salsas and fresh chiles. Sauvignon blancs, which are are high in acid, are also a good choice.
Chicken is traditionally paired with white wine, so if you’re having Enchiladas Verde, try a crisp, dry Chenin Blanc or Riesling to play against the acidity of the tomatillos…but…if you’re serving Chicken Mole Enchiladas, a smooth young pinot noir will balance the chocolate and spices beautifully!
Look for an “unoaked” Chardonnay to pair with your tamales or dishes that contain masa. Chardonnays pair well with corn, but be careful to get one that’s not oaky. A Viognier is a fine choice for those who need a drink of something cold to put out the fire.
Zinfandel, with its massive fruit flavors, holds up well to savory, meaty beef dishes like Carne Asada. Syrah (shiraz) is sensational with the earthy, red-chile adobo sauce of Chiles Colorado.
There are only a few wines I’d recommend you keep away from when eating or serving Mexican food. Neither Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot fare well at all, as both of these red wines contain a lot of tannins — they give the wine structure but can also make it taste too dry. When tannins hit the flavor of chiles, it sets your mouth on fire, and you end up missing the complexities of the food. Oaked Chardonnays will fight with the complexity of Mexican dishes so that the wine ends up tasting bitter and not-so-pleasant. Nobody wants that!
Cinco de Mayo parties might not be for everyone, but should you choose to celebrate the holiday, please remember it’s significance to Mexico and be thankful they survived to share their culture with us!