Of the many food festivals held in the United States every year, the Rolls Royce is the Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen. It is sponsored by Food & Wine magazine and drew, in June of this year, a crowd of five thousand to Colorado’s most chichi tourist town, for three days of food and wine seminars, tastings, demonstrations, and dinners. Wineries and food purveyors from around the world roll out the red carpet for a demographically desirable horde of attendees. To mention only one salient statistic, the average household income of participants is $348,700 a year.

I had the pleasure of being a guest at the press luncheon on June 15 that explored the growing Mexican wine industry and how to pair wines with Mexican food. This event featured not only the best food I have ever had at a festival but also some of the best food I’ve had anywhere, anytime.

I have to admit that up to now, I’ve been one of those who has not taken Mexican wines seriously. What we tasted that day changed my mind. Without a doubt, fine wine can be made in Mexico. Of course, not all the wine is of such a high caliber—naturally the luncheon’s planners brought only the best. But the leading wineries are capable of impressive vintages.

The discussion leader for the lunch was the well-known Mexican food consultant Lula Bertrán, who made two interesting points: First, she said, a new generation of chefs in Mexico—trained in international techniques—has lightened the country’s traditional preparations, making the food more amenable to wine. In the more sophisticated restaurants, sauces have achieved a lighter consistency, chile flavors have been subdued (though not erased), and lard has been reduced. Second, in the last decade, Mexican winemakers have begun to make wine of a quality that seemed unattainable before. Not surprisingly, the best pairings are made with food and wine of the same geographic region.

Following her introduction, a five-course luncheon was served featuring wines from Mexico’s primary wine-growing region: Baja California. Ninety percent of Mexico’s grape harvest occurs there. The pairings of wine and food were suggested by a team of experts that included two people who were on hand at the luncheon to answer questions: Rondi Frankel, public relations director for Monte Xanic Winery; and Fernando Favela, owner of Château Camou winery.

The spectacular food was created by chef Guillermo González Beristáin, the co-owner of Pangea Restaurant in Monterrey, Mexico, which many think is the best restaurant in the city and one of the best in the country. As the name suggests, the menu at Pangea is global in scope, with an emphasis on Mexican flavors and basic French techniques. Wine Spectator magazine singled out Pangea’s wine list for recognition in 1999. If you have an opportunity to visit Pangea, go for it!

Wine and Food Pairings

The crab salpicón tostada was paired with Monte Xanic’s 1998 Viña Kristel, a white wine consisting of 80 percent Sauvignon Blanc, 20 percent Semillon.

The filo crisp (filled with cuitlacoche and goat cheese and topped with a zucchini blossom emulsion) was paired with Château Camou’s 1998 Blanc de Blancs, a white wine blended from primarily Chenin Blanc with lesser amounts of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Halibut crusted with pumpkin seeds topped by an emulsion of hoja santa leaf was paired with Viña de Liceaga’s 1999 Merlot, a red wine.

Aztec pie was paired with Valmar’s 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon, a red wine.

Chicken breast in Oaxacan-style mole rojo was paired with Château Camou’s 1997 El Gran Vino Tinto, a red-wine blend consisting of 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 percent Merlot, and 20 percent Cabernet Franc.

We asked Rondi Frankel, who had assisted in pairing the wine and food, what had led them to combine certain flavors, because several of them were somewhat unexpected. Her answers follow. By the way, many of the wines here should be available in the United States at larger wine stores in the major cities. Most are reasonably priced, at around $10 to $30 a bottle. If these particular vintages are not available, others from the same vineyards should be, in case you want to experiment.

Rondi Frankel: First, let me say that we designed the pairing by tasting all the wines that were to be featured at Aspen with all the dishes. It’s my belief that wine pairing with Mexican foods is full of surprises, and may not follow traditional rules because the flavors mix in special ways.

Patricia Sharpe: How did you decide to use a white wine with the cuitlacoche (corn fungus) wrapped in crisp filo? Wouldn’t a red wine be more appropriate?

RF: For the cuitlacoche and goat cheese crisp, the outstanding feature was the texture of the food and the wine, both of which are “creamy.” The Camou Blanc de Blancs is a high-alcohol, fruity, and well-structured wine that stands up well and combines with the fungus, which in this dish has a delicate flavor.

PS: The Aztec pie has many strong and competing flavors. It must have been difficult to chose one wine that would work with all of them.

RF: The Aztec pie was paired with the Cabernet Sauvignon precisely because of the intensity of flavors. I’ve been surprised several times by the affinity of Cabernet Sauvignons—at least the Mexican ones—for tomatillos. Believe it or not! Of course, the tomatillos should be well ripened. The white wines that we tried did not stand up to the intensity of the dish’s flavors.

PS: A Cabernet Sauvignon seems like a natural for a mole sauce. What about this particular choice, a Château Camou, makes it work so well?

RF: We consider Cabernet Sauvignon to be a great match with red moles in general. When we tasted the mole rojo with Château Camou’s El Gran Vino Tinto, they just seemed to melt together. The key here is the wine’s soft tannins, which don’t clash with the spiciness of the mole, and of course, the mole is not too hot. And yes, the dish is robust and calls for a well-structured wine.