While margaritas and cervezas are often the beverages of choice with Mexican food, sometimes a little Merlot matches seamlessly with classic Mexican fare.
Why wine with Mexican food?
I’m all for downing tacos and burritos, and other hand held Mexican items with a cold Michelada or mezcal.
But when it comes to fork and knife food, sometimes I just want a gentler palate cleanser and a whisper of acid rather than a nuclear cleanup.
It is often said that what grows together goes together. Originally a Mexican province in the 1800s, California is peppered with many restaurants, taquerias, and taco trucks that reflect the heritage and immigration from their southern neighbor.
Why California Merlot?
California Merlots are distinct from French Merlots, where they are a primary grape used in Bordeaux blends.
In California, the land of big, juicy overstated single varietal wines, Merlot stands tall as a hot climate wine with the following characteristics:
- full bodied with rich dark fruit flavors
- some tobacco, leather, and cocoa notes
- complex and rich aromas
- silky, soft tannins
- easy to drink and match with food
- better value and the ultimate hack for a big California Cabernet Sauvignon
In addition to rich, bold, black fruit flavors of plum and blackberry, Merlot also has a warming quality to it different from Cabernet.
Like a good book you would curl up to next to the fireplace, California merlot reminds me of the warmth of the Mexican sunshine and culture beyond the all inclusive resorts with swim up bars that are illegal in the US.
Hot climate merlot matches the hot climate cuisine found in Mexican cuisine with its cocoa laced mole sauces, unctuous beans, and savory meats wrapped in homemade corn tortillas and whipped masa dough.
6 Mexican Food Pairings with Merlot
Here are 6 pairings with Mexican food featuring some fine merlots from various wine regions around the golden state.
The wines below were provided as samples for my review. All opinions are my own.
Pairing #1 Black Bean Tamale with Sonoma County Merlot
A favorite bargain Merlot is the Decoy from Sonoma County, a label from Duckhorn Vineyards.
As with many merlots, the Decoy from Sonoma County gets better as it sits.
This merlot was the sweetest and most light bodied and also the most approachable.
Raspberry, cherry, cocoa, and a little pine and menthol on the nose with a bursting acidity, a touch of raspberry tartness and mint on the palate.
I could see this wine with a sweet glazed balsamic-soy sauce marinated steak or any combination of global chicken and mushroom preparations.
For this Mexican food pairing exercise, I thought it could brighten up a vegan tamale stuffed with pureed black beans cooked with onion and bay leaf.
It did cut through the hefty beans and masa and also made the wine taste a little more vegetal. This wine, though, could really pair with anything.
Pairing #2 Carne Asada with Napa Valley Merlot
The Duckhorn Merlot is perhaps the most iconic one in California and one of the most popular in America.
While Duckhorn makes several different Merlots from various vineyards, the 2016 Merlot from Napa Valley had a near perfect vintage according to the winery with winter rain, a dry spring and summer, and lots of sunshine.
With 77% Merlot and 22% Cabernet Sauvignon, this blended merlot displayed notes of ripe blackberries, plum, cedar, and a touch of spice.
The mouthfeel was the most luxurious of the bunch and had nice acidity with a rich, round finish from satin tannins.
I would have liked this with some game such as bison, rabbit, venison, or duck with plenty of black pepper and a cherry sauce.
Instead, I chose a simply salt and peppered carne asada steak just to appreciate the all rich fruit in the wine.
Pairing #3 Steak Empanada with Paso Robles Merlot
The Ranchita Canyon Vineyard Merlot has chalky tannins that needed a weighty steak empanada to tame.
Some say that merlot needs at least an hour to air out. This one could have definitely used that time.
My tongue is still buzzing from the gripping tannins.
Dark and inky colored, it displays big, dark fruit. Though I paired with steak empanadas, I always wanted to try this with ropa vieja, spaghetti with lots of cheese, or Korean barbecue beef.
Pairing #4 Squash Quesadilla with Central Coast Merlot
The Donati Family Vineyard Merlot from the Paso Robles has enough juicy acid to pair with cheesy quesadillas.
This merlot differed from the others with its beautiful light, brick red hue, light body, and acidic sting.
Bright young, red berry fruit contrasted well with cheesy veggie quesadillas stuffed with Oaxacan cheese and sauteed squash.
I could also see this wine pairing with paella, pork tenderloin, blackened fish or a pork stir fry. It did not pair well with the black bean tamale though.
Pairing #5 Pork Carnitas with Mendocino Merlot
The Bonterra Organic Vineyards Merlot from Mendocino County is a well distributed organic wine with acidity that cuts through hefty pork carnitas.
This merlot is on the lighter end of the range of wines presented in this post.
Soft tannins, profuse acidity, and dominant cherry and blackberry flavors made a refreshing contrast with pork carnitas that are first braised, shredded, then fried in lard.
Pairing #6 Vegan Mole Enchiladas with Oak Knoll District Merlot
Last but not least, my favorite merlot pairing of this exercise is mole sauce with the Materra Wines Merlot from Napa Valley.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Merlot are its chocolate notes. The Materra Merlot from Napa Valley is like a warm cup of cocoa.
Like a thick blanket, the weight is heavy on the palate with notes leather, earth, pine, and smoke.
Mole is a mother sauce in Mexican cuisine. Made with roasted chiles, spices, and chocolate, its richness and complexity matched seamlessly with the Merlot.
I had the mole sauce smothered all over vegan enchiladas stuffed with lightly sauteed mushrooms, onion, spinach, and tomato.
Merlot & Mexican Food Pairing Tips
Merlot is a very food friendly wine that can pair with a number of different dishes. With Mexican food specifically, here are some general tips.
What worked well together:
- Rich mole sauces infused with cocoa
- Hearty refried beans and hefty tamales made with corn masa
- Pork carnitas, carne asada, and bell peppers
What didn’t work so well together:
- Pico de gallo and fresh salsas proved to be a little to zesty for the wine
- Straight chocolate pieces I found to a be too sweet for the wine
- Too much herb in a dish such as meats cooked/garnished with copious amounts of epazote or cilantro didn't match with the big fruit players in California Merlots
- Too much chile and spicy heat in the food will make the tannins rage
As for the ever popular guacamole, it was hit or miss and worked better with some merlots rather than others.
Celebrate #MerlotMe month
October is #merlotme month, a celebration of this underrated wine that was knocked sideways by adverbially named movie from 2004.
To learn more about merlot and foods to pair with it, check out these #winepw writers:
- Jane at Always Ravenous shares "Food Pairings with Merlot"
- Jennifer at Vino Travels Italy shares “Merlot Pairings for #MerlotMe Month”
- Jill at l'Occasion shares "Foolproof Pairing for #MerlotMe Month"
- Camilla at Culinary Adventures with Camilla shares "This Food-Friendly Varietal Takes You From Savories to Sweets, Snacks to Cakes"
- Lori at Dracaena Wine shares "Onion Pastry on My Plate Makes #MerlotMe So Great"
- Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm shares "A Month Long Merlot Extravaganza"
- Martin at Enofylz Wine Blog shares "Exploring Meatless Merlot Pairings for #MerlotMe "
- Kat at The Corkscrew Concierge shares "Merlot is the Perfect Dining Companion"
- David at Cooking Chat shares "Vegetarian Stuffed Acorn Squash with a Napa Merlot"
- Pierre and Cindy at Traveling Wine Profs share "A very well-traveled Merlot with Vietnamese bò kho
- Linda at My Full Wine Glass shares "It’s #MerlotMe month. Where’s the umami?"
- Rupal at Syrah Queen shares “Celebrating Merlot with L'Ecole No 41"
- Sarah at Curious Cuisiniere shares "Hachis Parmentier and Merlot Pairing"
- Nicole at Somm's Table shares “Exploring California in 5 Merlots"
- Cindy at Grape Experiences shares "Game Day? #MerlotMe with Ham and Cheese Sliders"
- Gwen at Wine Predator shares "California vs. France #MerlotMe with squash, chard, and bow tie pasta"
- Jeff at Food Wine Click! shares "Young Professionals Explore Merlot"
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Do you love merlot? Spread the ♥, and please share!
Now this is a pairing I need to try! Mexican and Merlot would not have crossed my mind
Thanks David! Hope you give a try some time. 🙂
these pairings sound incredible. Especially the squash quesadilla. I need that recipe!!! I had the Donati wines also. Very enjoyable! I totally can see Merlot as a perfect Mexican pairing - just watch the heat factor - adobe could be rough! LOL
Thank you so much Lori! The squash quesadilla is simply a corn tortilla with sauteed zucchini and cheese, preferably Oaxacan cheese since it melts so nicely. 🙂
Cynthia and Pierre says
Hooray for Mexican food to celebrate wine! Really great point you made about the importance of Mexican heritage in CA and how it's truly part of the sense of place.
Thanks so much Cynthia and Pierre! 🙂
Jill Barth says
I've just returned from San Diego and can't seem to get enough salsa verde now... I'm curious if I could make it work with Merlot?
Otherwise, you've packed a good war chest here. Love it!
Ooohh, great question! I think it would work with a more acidic, lighter bodied Merlot such as the decoy. With the heavier merlots, I found herbs did make the wines more vegetal. I hope you get your fix of salsa! 🙂
Nicole Ruiz Hudson says
I love this post! So much fun, great pairings, and I will definitely refer back to some of these suggestions! I totally agree with your point as well that CA Merlots are the "better value and the ultimate hack for a big California Cabernet Sauvignons." That's exactly how I use them too.
Thank you so much Nicole! I agree that Cab does seem to get all the attention. Nice to hear your appreciation for Merlot!
Cindy Rynning says
You had me with the squash quesadillas and Donati Merlot!! Well done-I love these pairings!!
Thank you so much Cindy!
I was thinking Mole, too! I couldn’t find a recipe to suit me. Great pairing tips for any and all meals to serve with Merlot.
Ahh ha! Nice to hear you thought of mole too. Cool! 🙂
MARTIN D REDMOND says
I love the pairings Deanna. Funny...just a couple of days ago I was thinking about going to my favorite local Mexican restaurant an picking up an Mole Poblano Enchilada because I bet that would work with one of the more fruit forward CA Merlots! Great minds!
What a coincidence Martin! Glad I wasn't the only one who thought of this pairing. It really does do well together! 🙂
Wendy Klik says
I love that you went with Mexican pairings. Thanks for the tips and the pairing ideas.
Thank you Wendy!
Thank you Wendy! I did have fun doing them.