High Wire Acts: Fine Mexican and Gewürztraminer Its All About Balance

I want to keep talking real Mexican food. To define it and its balance.

Define Mexican food? Why bother? It’s tacos, burritos, chimichangas, and tostadas, right? And, anyway, this column is about wine, and it’s not like they sell wine at Taco Bell or Reubens Empanadas.

Why bother, you ask?

Because fine Mexican food, and fine foods from plenty of non-wine producing cultures, are in restaurants near you, and you’ll want to drink wine, right? With the influx of any group of people, their food acts as a vanguard, preparing the way for a broader cultural importation that will follow. And, fine Mexican food is a far cry from burritos, chimichangas, and tostadas. So too, with Asian foods. African. So, to be prepared for the wine decisions of the future, study Mexican now.

First of all, what is Mexican cuisine? A difficult question to answer, of course. It’s many cuisines. What has been made popular, not only in the US, but worldwide, is Northern Mexican, or ranch land food. Beef, beans, and corn – Carne Asada Tacos, Huevos Rancheros, and Beef Chimichangas. This is Mexican as served in Paris and Tokyo, as well as Brownsville, Texas. This Northern Ranch style defines what Mexican food is for most people—good old Tex-Mex or Cal-Mex.

This is about as correct as saying Italian food is spaghetti with meatballs or lasagna. Recently (2006), Manhattan has experienced the arrival of three new Fine Mexican restaurants, each vying to introduce the city to the fresh flavors of modern Mexican cuisine.   These restaurants—Pompano (Modern Mexican Seafood & Esquire’s best new Restaurant of the Year 2006), Ola (Pan Latin w/Asian Accents), and Dos Caminos (Updated Tex- & Central Mexican) all key on bold, balanced flavors. Central and Coastal Mexican (as well as most Caribbean and Central American) cuisines are cuisines of scarcity, similar to India and China in that beef is almost nonexistent, and white meat is flavor, not the focus of a meal, and to make up for the lack of meat richness, heavy spices, and bold sauces are used.

And, without a wealthy aristocracy, such as was in France for ages, to provide a demand for very refined foods, the cuisines have remained very much peasant food—quite local, full of simple ingredients, using native flavors, such as Hoja Santa, Epazote, various chilies, chayote, cactus, and huitlacoche (corn mushrooms).

For the past few decades, these foods have been refined and updated with modern elements. For example, below three recipes found on NYC menus:
Pipian de Puerco (Pork tenderloin marinated in tamarind vinaigrette, served with roasted corn puree and pumpkin seed sauce)
Huachinango a la Talla (Pan roasted red snapper marinated with achiote, served on a red cabbage and tomato salad, topped with sweet and spicy chipotle rouille)
Mixote de Cordero (Banana leaf braised, adobo-marinated lamb, with roast vegetables).
Not quite a taco or enchilada. And, certainly not peasant food.

It’s about the Balance

Complex balancing dominates the flavors the red snapper, and pork tenderloin by, respectively, a sweet and spicy chipotle rouille, and a vinaigrette with pumpkin seeds, and the bold, meat-sweetness of lamb weighs against the savory adobo and the sour orange juice of the braise.

The wines that will do best with these dishes mimic this balancing act, such as Gewürztraminers.  As with Rieslings, Gewürztraminers are wines that traditionally receives very little manipulate by winemakers, leaving pure varietal expression. In German, this name of this grape means “Spicy Traminer,” which speaks to the generous aromas and flavor of litchi fruit over a strong backbone of acid tartness.

Also, along with Rieslings, there are two dominant styles: the more lush German, which can include some residual sugar, and Alsatian, which is bone dry. Outside of those regions, the winemaker chooses which style they care to follow. Both styles stand up to the bold spice and balancing of this Modern Mexican food with a lush body and a sugar or fruit sweetness-tart acid balance.

Time to enjoy the dance of these high wire artists on your tongue.

The first two Wines from the Vault represent the two prototypical Gewürztraminers. The German style frequently has some RS (residual sugar) left after vinification, depending on the level of ripeness, and is typically fruit forward. It’s usual acidity balances not only the fruit, but any RS, and these two combine to put out spice flames. The Alsatian style leans to the dry style, displaying more back end. It balances lush impressions of fruit sweetness against this acidity. New world wines can follow either of these traditions for vinifying their wines.

As with the Rieslings, Gewürztraminers are left untouched by the vintner, preserving the pure varietal nature as well as the balance between fruit and acids.

Five wines under $20 (From the Vault)†

Inexpensive wines make up the bulk of most people’s wine drinking. But affordable doesn’t have to mean boring. Bonus—not only are these wines guilt-free for the budget, but they match everyday fare better than more expensive wines.

†(Prices are what I paid retail in Manhattan, circa 2003. Current, local prices may vary.) 

Mettenheimer Michelsberg
Gewürztraminer—Kabinett, QmP
Weingut Geil, Wine Markets Intl Inc. Importers
$13.99 Retail

Very pale straw, almost clear, with bright yellow highlights. Quiet, but firm litchi fruit scents present themselves over light lanolin notes—think raw wool. Almost disappointing for what is normally a very aromatic wine. Then the fireworks start. The attack is pure impressions of sweetness that immediately expands out into lush litchi fruit. The litchi sits mid-pallet as other fruit impressions, of green apples and pineapple, flash through it. Then it finishes long, with firm structure, and palate cleansing dryness. The mouth feels coated with flavor as the finish keeps going, and the tongue licks teeth.
The light sweetness and lush litchi put out spice heat. The fruit works wonderfully with the sweet side of the any of the above dishes, and the acids compliment the tart, leaving the palate refreshed and ready to enjoy another bite. Impressive wine.

Lucien Albrecht
Alsace—Gewürztraminer 2001
Robert Kacher, Selections Importer
$14.99 Retail

An excellent example of the fully dry Alsatian style, the second of the two major forms of Gewürztraminer. This Gewürztraminer shows medium straw color, very clear, with bright highlights. It also has high alcohol content, weighing in at 13.5%. (Ones at 9-11% tend to have sugar left in the bottle, depending on the year.) The nose is full of firm litchi fruit, though the scent doesn’t flow out of the glass. The attack on the pallet begins as litchi, which opens across the palate as velvety and rich, that then snaps quickly back with firm acids. Full body. Excellent, long, dry finish with Litchi fruit sparkles. A food wine, with lots of structure.

After about 10 minutes in the glass, the fruit opens up and finds some caramel notes to accompany it. Simply great with salmon (a fatty, very flavorful fish) and spicy salad. The lushness of the wine put out the spice flames.

Lamoreaux Landing
Finger Lakes, New York
Gewürztraminer 2001 

Very pale straw, almost clear, with bright highlights, and a medium viscosity, which suggests no sugar. Classic litchi fruit nose, solid and unmistakable, which creeps out of the glass. Behind this, a background of general fruitiness. Completely opposite of the German wine, the attack comes on dry, almost austere. But then, bursts out into a mouth coating, full body. Some bitter notes. Some litchi fruit. Lip smacking richness, with a long, dry finish. A wine all about extract, and mouthfeel. Without food, it comes on austere, and tough. But with food, it bursts alive. Especially with food having huge flavors, such as braised leeks with serrano chilies, or chili spiced sauces. The richness cools the flame. The size of the wine allows it to match with huge flavors—Alsatian in style, and a food wine: Not something to pour as an aperitif.

Navarro Vineyards
Anderson Valley
Gewürztraminer- 2001
1.5-liter magnum $36.00 (Or, divided in two: $18 for the imaginary 750 ml. bottles)
online http://www.navarrowine.com/shop/

Very, very appealing wine. Since its only available from the winery or in restaurants, the only reason I’m writing about it here is that it’s that good. Almost clear, very pale straw, with medium viscosity, suggesting Alsatian dryness. A pure, and forward litchi nose, with some litchi fruit and hints of earth-funk. Luscious. And, the flavors don’t disappoint. Opens dry, then immediately gives way to a lovely, mouth coating litchi sweetness. Smooth. Even with the structure and acids that keep the wine in the mouth long after you swallow, the acids behave—Long, dry, tart finish. Teeth licking. Excellent as an aperitif. Great with food. The lusciousness puts out spice fires, the size would stand up to any of these dishes, and the acids keep the pallet fresh while matching the brightness in Fine Mexican cuisine.

Covey Run
Washington State
Gewürztraminer -2001
$6.99 retail

A German-style wine, with a hint of residual sugar. Again, very pale straw. Limpid. The nose is reserved, with mild litchi and white fruit scent mixed with some pear. The attack gives impressions of sweetness. Pleasant, but not a blockbuster. Then, comes on the honeyed sweetness of big, mouth-coating flavors. The acids keep this in check, and the overall balance is excellent. A long, fruity, lush finish, developing tart dryness as it moves along. A food wine, it comes alive with braised leeks and serrano chilies. The wine washes away all bitterness and bite of the chilies and shows more fruit against the vegetables and heat. Interesting wine.

Recent Wine Notes

Label from Seigneur Terrace Pays D'Oc Merlot 2017
Seigneur Terrace Pays D’Oc Merlot 2017

An intriguing Merlot from Pays D’Oc region. Deep plum color with a touch of rust on the meniscus, fat legs all around the glass and a tad viscous. A bit hot in the glass, but showing rich stewed dark fruit with a touch of attractive spiciness at the end. A lean attack, with a zippy, saliva-inducing acidity that eventually expands into cherry and cassis notes. The acidity trails off into a long fruit/tart finish with fine tannins that finally arrive. This will pair up with middleweight meat dishes, like duck and generously sauced pork. (From the Tasting room wine club. Runs a bit over $15.00, taxes and shipping included, averaged over 12 bottles. ) 3.5 of 5 🍷🇫🇷#redWine #Paysdoc #merlot #France

Back label from a bottle of Other People’s Pinot Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2015
Front label from bottle of Other People’s Pinot Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2015

Mouton Noir’s Other People’s Pinto: Solid Washington State Pinot Noir—Light Bing cherry color, with a clear meniscus, showing a touch of browning, and a good number of long, slow legs. Very attractive nose showing cherry and dried cranberries with some earthy funk. Yummy medium body wine with red fruit right up front balanced with acidity, which mellows into a cooked berry flavor (think tart filling)—very, very fine tannins midpalate through the moderately long finish, which ends with a slightly​ bitter edge and lingering acids.Mouton Noir’s Other People’s Pinto: 4 of 5 🍷#redWine #Willamette Valley #PinotNoir #Oregon 🇺🇸
This fruitier versions make a great match with salmon or other fatty fish, roasted chicken or pasta dishes. (Do avoid oily fish, like maceral though: the tannins will hate them and have a fight in your mouth you don’t want to taste. Believe me.) Picked this up at my local shop: McGovern’s Wine.

label from bottle of Perelada Brut Reserva Cava N.V.
Perelada Brut Reserva Cava N.V.

This one shows big bubbles and a stochastic bead from around the glass—nearly water clear with a touch of dun. Glazed tart nose with spiced pear notes. Medium body, fairly effervescent, which last into a prickling tongue finish. Firm acidity with a touch of mustiness in the background and a fresh white fruit thread throughout. Solid without wow. The mustiness does seem to be a style thing. Odd that: 3 of 5 🥂 🇪🇸 #whiteWine #sparklingWine #cava #spain A very flexible wine as are most sparklers—the acidity allows this to take on creamy sauces as well as salads, seafood and even hard to match vegetables like artichokes and asparagus. Works as an aperitif as well. Picked this up at my local shop: McGovern’s Wine.

label from bottle of Gascón Malbec Mendoza 2016
Gascón Malbec Mendoza 2016

Rather tame for a Mendoza Malbec, especially at a steakhouse. Deep plum with garnet showing in the meniscus. Very slow forming fat legs. Fairly viscous. Laid back nose, with some suggestions of dark fruit and hints of toasty warm spices. Mild attack, which opens up into dark berry fruit. Some acidy, yet the tannins don’t come in until very late and made little impression. Overall, out of balance and not up to the meat: 2 of 5 🍷🇦🇷 Was served this at Embers Steakhouse. #redWine #Malbec #Mendoza Usually, these are bigger wines, with good structure and ample tannins, great for steak and most any red meats and meaty sauces. This petered out.

Label from bottle of Reviresco Maremma Toscana Sangiovese 13
Reviresco Maremma Toscana Sangiovese 13

A fair, if unimpressive Sangiovese from Toscana. Did the job with food, though. Medium plum, clear meniscus, with many long legs around the glass. Fruity nose, red and grapey. Fruity attack, medium body, some acidy, but lacking in tannins. Medium long finish, with that fruit working throughout. This style of wine prefers veal, poulty, cured meats, and more simply prepared beef and lamb.
Picked this up at Peppino’s Wines, a local shop on Third Ave.

Label from bottle of Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve California Cardonnay 2013
Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve California Cardonnay 2013

Full on Cali Chardonnay: Drenched in caramel. Medium goldenrod, plenty of fat, low legs and fairly viscous. Not as open a nose as I had expected: some flan notes and a touch of banana. The attack is caramel and creme brûlée. A fully body wine, mouth coating: big, rich, full of cream and caramel, with tropical fruit notes. This is new world Chardonnay, and shows why the style won the judgement of Paris. Orded in a local Brooklyn Restaurant we stumbled on a while back: 4.5 of 5 🍷🇺🇸 #WhiteWine #Chardonnay #California Pairs with creamy and buttery dishes, seafood and white meats, sweet vegtables and silky (creamy) soups.

Label from bottle of Puerta Vieja Rioja Crianza 2013 "Bodegas Riojanas"
Puerta Vieja Rioja Crianza 2013

Slick new style Rioja Crianza: Deep garnet with clears meniscous, a good number of long slow legs; reasonably viscous. The nose is slightly hot, with dark berry fruits, vanilla, and toast wood notes: lovely. Mostly body in the attack: zippy acidity, fine tannins, moving into berry fruit and vanilla lasting into the VERY long finish. Nice balance: saliva squirting acidity. The action is mid-palate and into the finish on this one: 4 of 5 🍷🇪🇸. This pairs well with lamb, pork, including chorizo and jamon, dishes spiced with mild peppers, paprika and saffron and hard sheeps milk cheese, like Manchego.

Label from bottle of Querencia Mendoza Malbec-Bonarda blend 2017
Querencia Mendoza Malbec-Bonarda 2017

A very good Mendoza blend without the wow. Dark Bing cherry color with clear meniscus and many slow legs around the glass. Loads of dark berries with a pinch of wood in the nose. The smooth attack, with dark berry fruit and a hint of cherry, with firm acidity—big wine, with excellent balance, though lacking tannins until the finish, were some very fine ​tannins finally show up: 3.5 of 5 🍷🇦🇷 #redWine #malbec #Bonarda #mendoza. The Malbec is a big meat wine, and the Bonarda mellows that, adding more exotic flavors, so it works well with a broad variety of meats from beef to chicken and even meatier fish, as well as the sweet-sour flavors found in south Asian foods.

Label from bottle of Prytania Califorina Chenin Blanc 2017
Prytania Califorina Chenin Blanc 2017

A subtle wine. Shows light parchment with a fair number of slow legs. Clean nose, with floral notes that turns rich and round with white berry notes and a touch of cream in the background. Medium body—very zippy, saliva quirting and late, some Mellon in the very long finish. Throughout—a creamy richness, yet it remains well balanced — a​ wine that gets better if you spend time thinking about it: 4 of 5 🍷🇺🇸 #whiteWine #CheninBlanc #california Pairs well with sweet-sour dishes as well as a variety of white meats and seafood. Some of the Asian foods doing the sweet-sour balance will pair nicely.

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