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Spicing It Up: A Sommelier's Tips on Wine and Mexican Food

Frontera Grill’s Jill Gubesch is rewriting the rule book on pairings for this varied cuisine

Jennifer Fiedler
Posted: May 3, 2012

Does Mexican food make you think of beer or margaritas? Jill Gubesch has something to say about that. The 46-year-old sommelier of star chef Rick Bayless' Chicago restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo has spent her 11-year career discovering the best ways to make wine work with Mexican food.

Originally from western New York, Gubesch moved to Illinois to study musical theater. Working as a waitress in Chicago after college, she realized she loved wine more, so she apprenticed as a sommelier until a job with Bayless opened up in 2001. Gubesch recently spoke with associate editor Jennifer Fiedler about what a decade-plus of experience in one of America's top Mexican restaurants has taught her, how chiles are easier to pair with wine than one might think (hint: grapes and chiles have similar flavors) and why it's OK to order that margarita and some wine with your meal.

Wine Spectator: What are the challenges in creating a wine list for Mexican cuisine?

Jill Gubesch: The biggest challenge is to get people engaged with the idea of wine with Mexican food. The more you understand how well it works together, the list can be super eclectic. We also change our menus every four weeks, which keeps me constantly engaged. The minute I think, "This type of wine won't really work with our food," they'll change the menu and I'll think, "Wow, this goes really great." That makes it really fun. I can choose wines from all around the world. There are no real rules written about wine and Mexican food.

WS: What have you discovered?
JG: Over the years I've come up with these chile profiles that work with classic grape varieties. I've found that a lot of the dried chiles we use have the same flavor profiles we see in wine. For example, pasilla chile has this bittersweet chocolate, espresso profile, so you think about wines that have that as well. It has a little bit of tannin, too, so I try to find richer, rounder, softer tannins in the wine, or fruit-forward wines to balance those tannins. Some of the wines that go with straight pasilla sauces are Zinfandels, which surprises a lot of people because pasilla chiles have what we call a building heat, so as you go through the dish, it gets hotter and hotter. People say, "Stay away from high-alcohol wines, they're going to make the dish hotter." But something like a high-alcohol Napa Zin with forward fruit really balances that heat in a beautiful way.

WS: Have you had the opportunity to travel around Mexico?
JG: Absolutely. Rick takes us to a different region each year. Some of the best lists that have really extensive [selections of] Mexican wines are found in Mexico City. We've been to the top restaurants there. It's one of my favorite places to visit.

Oaxaca is one of my favorite places for cuisine. They're known for the seven moles of Oaxaca, which are the most important moles of Mexico. Black mole is the king of moles, and when Rick won Top Chef, it was that dish that took it home for him. It's the most complex in flavor, around 30 ingredients. It's also challenging to pair with wine because you've got sweetness and layers of spices and all this complex stuff going on. Right now I'm using a wine from Priorat, the Parmì L’Infant de Porrera 2007, and it's got velvety tannins and concentration. This is one of the best I've found with it.

WS: Do you find that people want to order cocktails rather than wine?
JG: I do encourage people to start with that cocktail, because it's something you can't miss, but then I try to plant the seed that once you start thinking about your meal, you'll want some wine to match. One of the things that I've become known for with our regulars is our wine pairings at Topolobampo. I mix it up a lot and use small producers that people haven't heard of. I had a table recently that remembered years ago that I had Saxum [the producer of Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year in 2010] on my tasting menu as a paired wine, and he said it had turned him on to Saxum way back in the day.

Richard Lee
Napa —  May 3, 2012 3:18pm ET
I have found Petite Sirahs go very well w/mexican style dishes as well. Unfortunately PS gets ignored far too often. I addressed this issue back in December but so far WS has reviewed only 17 for 2009 and 2 for 2010. I have more than that in my own cellar. Nice article though, Frontera and Topolobampo can't be beat.
Gregory Smith
Lima, Peru —  May 7, 2012 4:35pm ET
I'm right there with you, Jill. We deal with misconceptions about wine and pairing wine with Peruvian cuisine. You wind up with some surprising combinations sometimes.
Gregg Smith
Director of Wine
Central Restaurante
Nancy Wasch
Pennsylvania —  May 8, 2012 9:12am ET
Yes, many Zinfandels and Petite Sirahs go well with with Mexican; however, I have found that a rich, spicy Shiraz will really allow the spiciness of the chiles in many Mexican dishes to "kick it up a notch". When we eat out at a Mexican restaurant we typically drink margaritas or beer since that is what the restaurants carry, but at home - it's always Shiraz or a spicy Zin.
Daniel Tranberg
E. Lansing, MI USA —  May 8, 2012 11:47pm ET
Jill did a wonderful job pairing wines with the meal I ate with my family at Topolobampo about a year ago or so. I am anxious to try the Priorat she mentioned above. We are planning a trip to Spain next year, unless they go broke!

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