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An Unlikely Marriage

Bruce Cass teaches at Pacific Rim Wine Education Center in San Francisco and is the author and editor of the "Oxford Companion to Wines of North America."

Mexico may be the historic site of the first commercial winery to operate outside Europe (near Parras, founded in 1596), but Mexico is not traditionally a wine-drinking culture. Today Muslim Algeria consumes more wine per capita than does Catholic Mexico. So it’s no surprise that customers at Mexican restaurants generally opt for cold beer or for tequila-based margaritas. But contrary to common belief, when paired correctly, spicy food and fine wine are a better match than cocktails or beer. And here in California, where we consume one and a half times more wine per capita than do Americans overall, it’s a match that makes sense. Los Angeles is perhaps the region where California’s fine wine influence most vigorously overlaps Latino culture and where Mexican restaurants are increasingly offering wine on their lists. But there are good marriages and then there are great ones. And, to maximize your dining experience--whether at home or out on the town--here are a few navigational tips for most successfully wedding the wine with the food.

Overall, the best wines for serving with dishes that are high in capsicum heat are French-American hybrids, which aren’t widely grown in California. These wines tend to have low tannin, low alcohol, modest acid and are often a little sweet and fruity. Grapes such as Chambourcin, Chancellor, Norton, Marechal Foch and Leon Millot thrive in the Northeast and Midwest of America because they are resistant to vine diseases such as powdery mildew that are common in humid summer climates. They are also better able than Cabernets and Chardonnays to survive low winter temperatures. Hybrid reds feature dark stone fruit aromas so powerful they border on floral candies. Compared to Cabernets and Zinfandels, hybrid reds seem lightweight, which is a smooth contrast with spicy chiles, particularly when these wines are slightly chilled. Two other Mexican food staples, frijoles and fried corn tortillas, have a satisfying, earthy richness that goes well with aged full-body white wines with nutty characteristics, such as a quality Italian Soave or a Semillon, and Rhone varieties such as Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier. It may seem indulgent to serve a $75 Condrieu (a Viognier from France’s northern Rhone region) with a $2 snack of quesadillas, but of just such a juxtaposition is noteworthy art made. A less-expensive alternative is serving a lusciously ripe, fruity-buttery California Chardonnay with posole, a thick corn soup with pork and chiles. The Chardonnay’s richness softens the soup’s spicy heat.

Particularly compelling matches involve the moles made from those most indigenous of New World ingredients: chiles, chocolate, peanuts, tomatoes and tomatillos. Mole is to Mexicans as chili is to Texans: everyone has their own secret family recipe. There are many styles, as anyone who has visited Oaxaca (its reputed birthplace) will attest. One major distinguishing characteristic is the proportion of smoky-flavored ancho or chipotle chiles used. For the less-smoky versions, old-vine Grenache wines that taste like very fragrant raspberry jam, such as those from the McLaren Vale district of Australia, are ideal.

Zinfandels from Amador County in California’s Sierra Foothills are another tasty match. Most impressive, however, for producing an eye-opening taste sensation is a very smoky dark mole made by Sal Morales at El Dorado Cantina on San Vicente Boulevard in Brentwood, matched to the black pepper nuances of a cold-climate Syrah such as the Rosemount 2000 Orange Vineyard Shiraz. You can also find those peppery overtones in northern Rhone reds or in California Zinfandels and Petite Sirahs from cool regions such as the Russian River district of Sonoma.

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Since the classic wine-food traditions of Europe do not supply us with much guidance on the subject of spicy cuisine, Southern California is the logical place for these pairings to be discovered and popularized. Our great advantage is access to an incredibly broad range of foodstuffs, wines and cultures, and we should be taking advantage of this. Research, of course, implies there will be failures as well as successes. At my house we go ahead and eat them both, but we do our best to remember how the successes were prepared so those can be confidently trotted out for an encore.

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Mole Recipes from Sal Morales at El Dorado Cantina, Brentwood

Moles can be served with roasted chicken, enchiladas, chiles rellenos or tamales, to name a few dishes. Additional mole can be frozen for up to two months.

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Black Mole

Makes about 8 cups

1/2 tablespoon butter

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1 small white onion, chopped

1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

2-3 ancho chiles, seeded and toasted

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2-3 chiles negros, seeded and toasted

1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds

1/4 cup toasted almond slices

1/4 cup toasted peanuts

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1-2 garlic cloves

1/4 cup raisins

3 cloves

1/2 pound Mexican chocolate

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3 roasted tomatoes

4 cups chicken stock

3 tablespoons vegetable shortening

Heat butter in a heavy 8-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Cover and reduce the heat to medium-low. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and golden brown, 20 minutes longer. Adjust the heat so the onions brown but do not burn. Add balsamic vinegar, plus salt and pepper to taste, and cook for an additional minute. Remove from heat and set aside. Put vegetable shortening and garlic cloves into a stockpot and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Then add remaining ingredients, including the onions, and simmer for 45 minutes. Allow mixture to cool. Transfer cooled mixture to a blender and thoroughly puree. Return mixture to sauce pan and simmer for another five minutes.

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Red Mole

Makes about 8 cups

2 ancho chiles, seeded and toasted

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3 guajillo chiles, seeded and toasted

1/4 cup vegetable shortening

5 garlic cloves

Pinch of anise seed

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2 tablespoons sesame seeds

3 medium roasted tomatoes

1/4 cup almonds, toasted

1/8 cup peanuts

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Pinch of ground nutmeg

Pinch of ground cloves

Black pepper to taste

1/2 pound chocolate

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1/4 cup raisins

1 small onion, chopped

4 cups chicken stock

Soak chiles in water for 20 minutes. Place shortening, garlic, sliced onions and anise and sesame seeds in a stock pot and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add tomatoes. Remove chiles from water and place in the stock pot. Add 2 cups of chicken stock and remaining ingredients and simmer for 45 minutes on low heat. Allow mixture to cool. Transfer cooled mixture to a blender and puree. Return mixture to the pot and add remaining chicken stock. Boil for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

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Chicken with Mole

Serves 4

1 (3 1/2-pound) chicken, cut into pieces

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1/2 yellow onion

1 clove garlic, divided

Salt

4 cups red mole (see recipe above)

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Place the chicken in a Dutch oven. Add onion half, a clove of garlic and water just to cover. Simmer about 20 minutes. Drain and reserve the stock, adding salt to taste. Add the mole and continue to simmer until chicken is cooked, about 10 minutes.


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