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Wine With Mexican Food? 

Long tradition of winemaking south of the border

In case nobody ever told you, Cinco de Mayo is not a national celebration of cheap tequila. Cinco de Mayo (which means "fifth of May") is a regional holiday celebrated in the capital city of the Puebla, Mexico. It commemorates the defeat of Napoleon's troops at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. What that has to do with the mass consumption of margaritas, I don't know.

Don't get me wrong, I love a good party as much as the next person. But why suffer through "morning after" head traumas when you can drink wine with your celebratory enchiladas instead?

Before you start ranting about the blasphemy of serving wine with Mexican food, consider this: people have been making wine in Mexico for hundreds of years and recently have been winning awards. None of that juice went to waste...think about it.

Not only that, Mexicans have made huge contributions to the US wine industry, first as vineyard workers, and now as winemakers and winery owners for fine California producers like Shafer, Ceja and Robledo.

The point I'm trying to make here is that wine is an important part of Mexican culture -- and that includes food. So why shouldn't we gringos enjoy wine with our tacos and burritos?

White wines with good acidity, like Sauvignon Blancs and non-oaky Chardonnays, are great matches for Mexican food, especially spicy dishes. Young Pinot Noirs are excellent with grilled foods and rich, smoky sauces, as are Zinfandels and fruity Merlots.

Of course, the best way to find tasty matches is to experiment. With this thought in mind, I contacted Amelia Moran Ceja, president of Ceja winery in California's Carneros region. According to Ceja, wine is a natural extension of Mexican food, and to prove it, she invited me to her house for lunch.

There we sampled authentic Mexican dishes with Ceja's outstanding Pinot Noir, Merlot and Chardonnay wines. Our first dish was a huge bowl of shrimp, sauteed with garlic, olive oil, cayenne and lime juice (not exactly Taco Bell fare). Surprisingly, both the Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir were great matches. The refreshing Chard cut through the spiciness of the cayenne, while the Pinot brought out the sweetness of the shrimp.

Next we had carnitas (braised pork), with mole sauce. The smoky-sweet sauce tasted awesome with the reds, but it didn't work with the Chardonnay. Finally, we had whole white beans, simmered with garlic. The Chardonnay was a nice match, but the Pinot was even better.

Aside from learning that Amelia is an amazing cook, I discovered that the best food and wine combos aren't always the ones we expect.

So when this year's Cinco de Mayo feasts and fiestas roll around, don't blindly reach for a lime-garnished beverage; think outside the sombrero and grab a glass of wine instead.

Wines

These food-friendly wines share a distinctively Mexican heritage. They're on the pricey side, but the cheapness of typical Mexican food should help balance things out.

Ceja 1999 Chardonnay

This yummy, non-oaky Chard smells like a combination of pears and vanilla. Its crisp pineapple-y flavors make it a great match for seafood enchiladas. $30 ****

Ceja 1999 Pinot Noir

Open a cigar box, add black pepper and take a whiff -- that's what this wine smells like. Light and fruity, with cherry-vanilla flavors. It's great with all kinds of Mexican food. $38 **** 1/2

Shafer 1999 Napa Valley Merlot

Made by Mexican-American winemaker Elias Fernandez, this fab Merlot is rich, lush and oozing with vibrant cherry flavor. Bueno with black beans and grilled chicken tacos. $38 **** 1/2 *

Comments? Questions? Great wine experience to share? Talk to us! We'll feature your comments in our Mailbag. E-mail corkscrew@creativeloafing.com, mail to Corkscrew, 1310 E. Ninth Ave., Tampa, FL 33605 or call 1-800-341-LOAF.

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