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Wine with Mexican food?

Spice opens doors to vinous surprises

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Lulu Bertran says: "Very few Mexicans are worried about cholesterol. Our cooking is based on pork lard. There's absolutely no interest in cooking with less grease." Historically, Mexicans "condition" their stomachs to the oncoming spice and richness by having a shot of tequila. Americans embrace beer before and during their Latin repasts. I would like to cast my vote for wine to leaven your meal; wine that will enhance the food and refresh the gums between bites. It's time to get off the beer and tequila bandwagon--at least occasionally. Dozens of varieties of chiles complement Mexican dishes. Seven different mole sauces (combinations of chiles, herbs and liquids) often provide gustatory kick to vegetable and meat fillings. Salsas provide buzz, with cayenne peppers releasing capsaicin, a tasty "irritant" that brings tears to the eyes and quasi-infernal heat to the tongue. Mexicans have long known that using the freshest raw vegetables, such as tomato, sweet pepper and squash, helps to mitigate the hot flavors. (Parenthetically, does anyone else dislike the smell of bottled salsa as much as I do? To me, it smells like a college dorm room after a long, intense weekend. No wine can ameliorate these vile, pre-packaged concoctions. I urge you all to make your own salsas with fresh tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic.)

In earliest times, Mexicans drank a mixture of water with honey to accompany their mordant fare. Aguamiel, the sweet juice of the maguey plant was, and still is, consumed. Often it's fermented into a beverage called pulque. This suggests one clue to our wine matching challenge. Sweetness helps to cool the fires, but unless you're a teetotaler, please don't drink a sugary or artificially sweetened Pepsi or Sprite. Consider consuming wines that contain a bit of residual sugar, an outstanding foil for spiciness and pleasing the oral cavity. Sweetness is but one solution. Wines with spice of their own, with mouth clearing acidity, with exotic fruitiness or a slightly bitter edge can work just as well. Bite, tannin, powerfully rich flavors and feistiness can also have a salutary effect.

What was most fun in this process was discovering a series of relatively obscure grapes that matched impeccably with Mexican dishes. Rarities abound. The white torrontes grape as interpreted by Chile's Santa Julia Vineyard, presents a perfect match to biting specialties. Rainbow Ridge's alicante bouschet, a workhorse red grape from southern France, makes a sturdy red in California that bowls you over while taming the tang. (Seldom bottled alone, the last 100 percent alicante bottling I remember tasting was from the Angelo Papagni Vineyard in the 1980s!) Finally, the carmenere grape, especially in the hands of Concha Y Toro, shows that this nearly forgotten red classic, originally from Bordeaux, is capable of making splendid wine; perhaps the finest I've ever tasted from South America.

I've never truly worked hard to solve this "spicy food--what wine really works?" dilemma--until now. All the following selections are guaranteed to soothe your palate even as the food flavors slowly smolder:

Whites and sparklers
The bubbles, somewhat like those in beer (but better), help, all by themselves, to cleanse the mouth.

2004 Riesling, Columbia Crest $10
Floral, soft and "oily" on the nose. Its "stick to it flavors" mitigate the zip and taste fresh and alive. Perfect with pepper and vanilla shrimp. 84 points

Riche Extra Dry, Domaine Chandon $17
A charming , ripe bouquet invites flavors that are full bodied, with just enough residual sugar and fruity acid to refresh. Try with cactus or cucumber salads. 85

2003-2004 Torrontes, Santa Julia $9
The surprise of the tasting. Its lemon zest, melony nose has an acid bite that I've found too prickly in the past. The same holds true for its steely edged, extremely spicy flavors. But matched up with tacos or tortillas, it is a magical success. This Chilean white, made from an originally Spanish grape variety, makes a novel match up. The '03 (86) is better than the '04 (84), but both are recommended. A must try.

Blanc de Noirs Brut, Mumm Napa $18
Brisk, subtle bouquet --elegant and fine. Expansive flavors are abundantly fruity, yet dry with clipped acids. One hundred percent pinot noir, it does a beautiful job on peppery vegetarian dishes like sweet potatoes, squash and beans. 87

2003 Rousanne, Bonterra $19
Intriguing minerality plus citric, banana and other tropical delights on the nose. Quick, tight flavors, and a lemony, lean kick of refreshment. What fun! Organically produced. Perfect with ceviche, lime marinated fish. 87

2003 Chardonnay, Casa La Postolle, Cuvee Alexandre $18
Generous fruit wearing a light, oaken evening jacket of flavor. Pear, vanilla, smoke and lilt. Remarkably lively and snappy to the taste, I love its uncharacteristic briskness. Works well with the nip of roasted tomatillos over enchiladas. 88

2002 Gewurztraminer, Hugel $18
A panorama of fresh, succulent smells, like the wash hanging outside on an April morning. Honeysuckle perfumed. Dry flavors, sharp with golden teeth, bitter edge and a touch of sweetness. Perfect for pico de gallo, a poultry dish with punch. 88

RedsMBR> 2003 Barbera, Sebastiani, Sonoma County $15
Round, deeply earthy with a strong perfume of plums. Feisty flavors with bite, tart tannins and ripe, unsubtle fruit. Not a sipping wine, but a fine counterpoint for lamb chile with root vegetables. 86

2003 Malbec, Trapiche $6.65
Sturdy wine with a "juicy" smell of dried berries, sweet earth and iodine over the texture of a Rhone red. Solid, chunky, satisfying flavors make this an easy wine to love. Good acidity matches homemade salsas nicely.

This kind of quality should scare Australian and southern French winemakers competing in the "fighting varietal" price range. 87 AMAZING VALUE

2001 Alicante Bouschet, Rainbow Ridge $20
Packs a wallop! Extremely ripe, almost raisiny fruit in the intense "dark" bouquet. Has lip-smacking richness and tannin, yet an underlying, unexpected silkiness. Delicious and different, it's a star accompanying mesquite chicken. 88

2003 Zinfandel, Fire Station Red $18
A characteristic briary, peppery style; warm and fragrant from 60-year-old Lodi vines. Superbly balanced, medium bodied with expressive tarry fruit, sass and edge. A natural for grilled meats with guacamole and sweet potatoes. The winemaker has done very well by America's firefighters, who share in the profits of its sales. 90

2001 Petite Syrah, Stag's Leap Winery $33
A magical mystery tour to the bowels of the earth. It smells of fecundity and richness--amazingly elemental. It has anise and chile of its own! Will stand up to anything you throw at it. Pull out all the stops with a buffalo or pork verde. Grandeur in a wall of fruit, with a ripe sweetness that caresses the mouth on the aftertaste.

My favorite interpretation of this grape. Wine master Robert Brittan delivers another beauty. 91

2002 Carmenere Terrunyo, Concha Y Toro $30
A magnificent wine. A distinguished bouquet leads you on a journey with this classic, forgotten Bordeaux grape. It has depth, ripeness, unsweetened chocolate, coffee and lavender in the cedary bouquet. These elements carry over to powerful flavors with substantial oak and profound taste. A marvel with a classic goat or shredded beef stew. A touch of end bitterness actually works to its advantage in battling the food's gutsiness.

If you've ever wondered about the style and proportion of those three-figure California boutique reds, or of the "garagiste" wines from Bordeaux, try this. 94

Mexico itself produces a large variety of wine in a growing industry. Wines from the Baja peninsula beneath California have a long, successful history, while the wines from the mainland are getting better and more varied. Hill and mountainside vineyards are being established to produce slightly cooler climate wines such as riesling. Only one winery, Santo Tomas, from the Baja region, is available in our market. There are four varietals produced, all worth trying, but I am particularly fond of the Tempranillo-Cabernet ($9). Its generous plummy bouquet is matched by a soft yet sharply etched mouth impression due to the tempranillo's acidity.

Remember that no wine, or any other beverage, will eliminate spiciness. The key is to reduce the spice between bites, and that is very enjoyable and doable. Unless you have a true cellar, be sure to chill your reds for 30-45 minutes before serving. That 60-degree temperature will refresh the throat while still retaining the wine's flavor interest. Salud!

And the winner is...
Sideways won a well-deserved adapted screenplay Oscar, and in the process energized Santa Barbara county and the bars and wineries there. Here's a beautiful example of a local pinot noir that would have made Miles and Maya purr:
2001 Pinot Noir, Daniel Gehrs, Santa Barbara $17
Velvet, roses, freshly cut beets, lanolin and an ethereally sweet bouquet. It drinks brightly with delicate berries, a long linear flavor and an effortless finish that goes on and on. Destined to be shared with someone as charming. 88

Have you heard?
Soon on a shelf near you --"Bokbunja," Korea's traditional raspberry wine. It's a sweet and light beverage that claims to be beneficial to the kidneys, overall health and stamina. So far, so good. On its coattails comes "Bekseju" from the Kook Soon Brewery Company. Claimed to be an effective cancer inhibitor, this beverage consists of rice powder, yeast and 10 kinds of forest herbs including ginseng. Yummy!

I may try Bekseju, but only if immediately followed by copious amounts of the raspberry Bokbunja.

Arturo Ciompi's WineBeat column appears the second Wednesday of each month. He can be reached at deal5@earthlink.net.

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