It seems like tacos are everywhere these days, whether it’s funky fun food trucks to high-end restaurants. While the diversity of taco fillings is delightful, pairings can be a challenge. For starters, consider any sauces and toppings (like chili pepper, onion, cilantro), not just the protein. Depending which region of Mexico your taco is from, or even if it’s Tex-Mex, flavors can run the gamut from tingly heat, to sweet, to tangy and often all the above. But even if it’s not extremely hot, some sort of chili is usually a factor. That translates to red wines with gentle, soft tannins and whites that balance sugar and acidity. Tacos also play well with crisp, quaffable beers like pilsners, citrusy IPAs, and lighter lagers, as well as anything in the extended margarita family. “If you’re in Mexico, someone’s going to hand you a taco, and you squeeze the lime right on,” says Noah Small, beverage director for New York City’s Empellón group. Because margaritas deliver that same citrusy zing, “it’s a natural thing to reach for.”
MEXICAN VS. AMERICAN SANGRITA
Breakfast: This beloved Tex-Mex staple, often made with scrambled eggs, bacon, and potatoes, is ideal with a Michelada, a tall, cold beer kicked up with the addition of lime juice and spices. “Champagne is [a] great move here if that’s how you like to roll,” says Small. “I’d also reach for Chardonnay with this.”
Al Pastor: Made with pork marinated with chili peppers and pineapple, Small likens the filling to BBQ. “It’s fatty meat with some sweetness to it, and that’s very good with beer…A session IPA that’s not too heavy? That’s perfect.” For wine, he says, “reds from the Canary Islands with all that volcanic smokiness work well. If you like something juicier, Rioja will do just fine.”
Fish: For Baja-style fish tacos made with fried or grilled fish, Small reaches for brisk white wines, particularly Albariño, Sauvignon Blanc or Spanish Txakoli. Fried fish also works well with beer and, of course, the classic margarita. “Anything citrus-focused” will pair well, he says.
Bistec (Beef): “You see a lot of beef preparations in Mexico,” says Small. “Different cuts are presented on tacos.” Your best pairing may depend on how the beef is prepared, whether it’s seared, braised, or stewed. No matter the cooking method, Small says, “It’s a good chance to go for a bolder red wine,” particularly Tempranillo, Grenache, or Malbec.
How To Pair Wine And Tacos
Why should drink pairings with tacos be limited to beer and Mexican spirits? There should be no shame in pairing a double-decker taco with your favorite rosé. “I think wine pairing for anyone is going to become much more sensible,” says Celia Pellegrini, general manager and wine director of Suerte in Austin. “It’s so easy to pick up a bottle of wine and not have to lug around a case of beer or create cocktails. Wine is becoming a really good way to kind of create a complete meal and celebrate that.”
Pairing Tips From Celia Pellegrini
1. Start with proteins. “For red meats, stick with light, bright reds, such as the mouthwatering Touriga Nacional from Adrienne Ballou’s Lightsome Wines in the Texas Hill Country. With chicken and seafood, I love Spanish whites like vinho verde and albariño—anything with high acid and a little bit of salinity, just like you find in a margarita. Southold Farm and Cellar in Fredericksburg makes an albariño called Sing Sweet Things that fits this bill perfectly.”
2. Take inspiration from drinks you already enjoy with Mexican food. “Why do people pair margaritas, palomas, and lagers with Mexican food? Because the flavors work well together, so I find wines that echo those same notes. When it comes to street food, I typically want to drink a Mexican Coke, Sprite, or Jarritos because it’s bright and refreshing with a little bit of acid and a little bit of fruit or sweetness. That’s why you always see them around taco stands. Lambruscos and pétillant naturels (pet nats) work well with simple street tacos. Pet nats often have similar notes that are light, fresh, and make your mouth water a little bit as the bubbles refresh the fatty texture of the tacos. One of my favorites, from Tecate, Mexico, is the Bichi Pet Mex.”
3. Choose wines that echo the flavors of Mexican foods. “Mexican cooking is complex and layered, particularly when you look at dishes like mole negro. There are notes of dried fruit, chiles, chocolate, and more, which makes it difficult to find a wine that fits. I typically pick one note to focus on. With mole negro, I’ve had success pairing several Chilean wines, because they have these beautiful pepper notes that remind me of the chiles in mole negro. Mexican cooking has a lot of chiles, and while I don’t often find wines that remind me of the dried chiles of Mexico, I can often find wines with notes of pepper and jalapeño.”
4. Go for bubbles, but with caution. “Bubbles do a great job of balancing out fat, but they can also exacerbate spice. If you are going to go with bubbles, go with something with a lot of fruit. The fruit notes will stand up to the bold flavors of the chiles and spice. William Chris Vineyards’ pétillant naturel rosé is the perfect balance of bubbles and fruit.”
5. Skip the tannins. “There are two faithful guidelines that I stick to pretty much every time. The first is that you should drink something you enjoy alongside the food that you enjoy. There are so many ‘rules’ in wine pairings that it’s easy to get caught up in the nuances, but never drink something you don’t like just because it’s the ‘right’ pairing. That said, when pairing wine with Mexican food, do skip high-tannin reds. Tannins make your mouth dry, and the last thing you want when you’re eating spicy foods is to not be able to flush out the spices.”