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How To Pair Tacos and Wine, Let’s Taco ‘Bout It

How To Pair Tacos and Wine, Let’s Taco ‘Bout It

taco and wine pairings

Tacos are undoubtedly one of Mexico’s most significant contributions to the culinary world. What originated as a hand-held staple filled with beef, pork, chicken, or beans has experienced myriad transformations across the globe. From Asian-inspired to gourmet to vegetarian (and don’t forget breakfast versions) — there are no limits to the flavors a taco can embody, which makes pairing tacos and wine all the more difficult. 

Let’s face it; when did you last reach for a glass of vino while your other hand precariously clawed a filled-to-the-brim scrumptious taco? The duo invites a questioning of classic food and wine pairing rules we know and love. Should we only have white wine with fish tacos? Something with residual sugar to temper chipotle-ridden versions? But what about vegetarian options with beans or mushrooms — do we match savory notes or umami? The questions potentially never end, not to mention the additional pairing turmoil when adding cheese, hot sauce, guacamole, or other accoutrement. Unsurprisingly, we often settle for a Margarita, Mexican Beer, or craft cocktail on the ubiquitous Taco Tuesday.

For wine enthusiasts with adventurous palates, it’s time to dive deep into an intricate and flavorful journey combining two great culinary pleasures: tacos and wine. 

Beginning with an episode of Eating & Drinking with Jeff Porter, available on SOMM TV, Porter discovers a mind-blowing pairing that combines a traditional al pastor taco at Taqueria Al Pastor in Brooklyn with Lauer Riesling from Germany’s Saar area.  


Some may say that Porter’s pairing seems obvious; who wouldn’t balance the sweetness of pineapple and spice with Riesling? But as we dive deeper into the flavor complexities of tacos and wine, we uncover surprising limitless possibilities, none of which are assumed.

Matching vs Contrasting Flavors

Some of the most successful food and wine pairings come down to complementary versus congruent flavors. For instance, a complementary pairing might include a zesty grilled fish taco with mango salsa alongside a vibrant and crisp Albariño. The wine’s acidity complements the taco’s citrusy elements, enhancing the overall experience. On the flip side, consider a classic carne asada taco featuring savory grilled beef. Opting for a congruent pairing like a bold Malbec that mirrors the robustness of the meat intensifies the taste with shared notes of richness and depth. 

Knowing when to utilize each strategy is key, taking into consideration all elements of the taco. In some instances, that means employing both methods. “I’m always in search of the right mixture of same and different, like and contrast,” says sommelier Mackenzie Vir Khosla of NYC’s Pasquale Jones. “I often compare it to using a color wheel — you need both analogous and complementary colors.”

For Khosla’s ideal pairing, ”I’ll usually go for carnitas and pair it with something with spice and some green notes, like the Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo made by Cristiana Tiberio; it’s a delicious and versatile rosé that’s perfect.”

Camille Lindsley, beverage director and owner of HAGS in NYC, is also a year-round champion of pairing rosé for its structural integrity. In particular, “With shrimp or fried fish tacos, lately I’ve been loving Titolo Rosato of Aglianico from Elena Fucci. It’s got tons of fresh red fruit and acidity thanks to the high altitude of the vineyards.”

Khosla also mentions NYC’s Taco Mahal for another take on complementary flavors. “As an Indian, I find what they’re doing particularly intriguing. They offer a roti taco with lamb curry and a Northern Rhône Saint-Joseph Syrah,” he continues. “Your tastebuds feel like they’re touring an exotic spice market with just the right mixture of everything.”

What Grows Together Goes Together

Even though it’s one of the good ‘ol standby pairing rules — serving terroir-centric food with nearby growing wine — Mexican wine doesn’t seem an obvious choice for tacos. However, Alex Sarovich, executive wine director at Little Saint in Healdsburg, CA, explains otherwise. “Something from the Vallée de la Guadalupe would be a great option because of the high elevation, sea-influence, and sandy soils. Who doesn’t love a great fish taco on the beach?” 

Sarovich reaches for an Aligoté from Tresomm, a women-owned winery in Mexico, for something to cut the richness of a fish taco batter that also has chipotle notes. “Think of Aligoté as if Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay had a baby. It’s bright and mineral while still having beautiful texture and depth on the finish,” she explains.

This pairing doesn’t exclude vegan-friendly alternatives. Sarovich once paired the Tresomm Aligoté with a tempura battered and deep fried celery root taco by former Little Saint chef Bryan Oliver. With fresh tortillas, slaw, and chipotle aioli, they were “Legitimately some of the greatest tacos I’ve ever had, and they were 100% Vegan,” she exclaims.

La Maceración Carbónica

When pairing tacos and red wine, it helps to know a thing or two about winemaking — specifically, the characteristics of a wine that goes through carbonic maceration. 

Carbonic maceration or “whole grape fermentation” (different from “whole bunch/cluster fermentation”) is most common in Beaujolais Nouveau wines that use the Gamay grape. It’s also standard in other winemaking regions, using various red grapes, to produce light-bodied, brightly colored, fruity wines for early consumption.

In the Eating & Drinking taco episode, Porter explains the effect of semi-carbonic maceration in Rootdown’s Trousseau from the St. Amant vineyard in Lodi, CA. “It’s just a small percentage of the grapes that are carbonic but produce a wine that’s quite fruit-forward,” he continues, “the fruitiness keeps the [taco’s] spice in check.”

Additionally, a wine with carbonic maceration can be an excellent strategy for pairing with the ever-difficult umami characteristic in mushrooms. For instance, “My favorite tacos and wine pairing is recreating the Satellite mushroom tacos and pairing them with the carbonic Syrah from Solminer winery,” says Jenna Isaacs, a sommelier at Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, CA. “The mushrooms work so well with the fruitiness of the wine.”

Despite their light and fruitiness, carbonic red wines are still a great choice for a perceived ‘heavier’ meat taco, such as barbacoa, lengua, al pastor, or carne asada. “I love a red wine with a good balance of earthy-ness but isn’t overly tannic and has some fresh fruit-forward acidity,” adds Lindsley. “I’ve been loving the Cheeky Red from Nomadica — a whole cluster, carbonic Mourvèdre with Petite Syrah — and would drink that with [meat] tacos in a heartbeat.”

Alt Tacos and Wine Strategies

For an alternative to tacos and wine, but without falling back to typical beer or cocktail options, look to an utterly unexpected beverage: sake. Best known throughout Japan, sake breweries are popping up worldwide, including Mexico.

“I just put this Mexican sake producer, NAMI, onto the list at ILIS,” explains ILIS wine director Tira Johnson. “I love expanding people’s minds about how food and beverage have crossed the globe over the years.”

For meaty tacos, “I would pair their Tokubetsu Junmai because the sake leans more savory and structured,” explains Johnson. Alternatively, “For seafood tacos, go for the Junmai Ginjo since it leans more delicate on the palate to balance the sea’s natural salinity.”

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