There are few limits to the taco. So why should beverage pairings with tacos be confined to beer and Mexican spirits? There should be no shame in pairing a double-decker taco with a rosé. “I think wine pairing for anyone is going to become much more sensible,” says Celia Pellegrini, general manager and wine director of Suerte in Austin. “It’s so easy to pick up a bottle of wine and not have to lug around a case of beer or create cocktails … . Wine is becoming a really good way to kind of create a complete meal and celebrate that.”
Suerte is one of the first Texas restaurants to thoughtfully pair wine and tacos, along with Taco y Vino in Dallas. But modernist Mexican restaurant Suerte also stands out for its intense focus on heirloom corn; its beloved, signature suadero taco; and a general willingness to take risks. In a bold move, Suerte has transformed itself into a full-on taqueria during the pandemic. With a little help from the state’s newly loosened alcohol sales regulations, the restaurant—which like other eating establishments had to adapt quickly to stay solvent this spring—now has a fighting chance with curbside retail wine and taco pickup.
Texas Monthly spoke with Pellegrini, an Austin native with a level one certification with the Court of Master Sommeliers, about pairing tacos and wine, demystifying wine vis-à-vis Mexican food, why it’s so hard to get Mexican wines in the U.S., and “giving a shit about what you consume.”
Texas Monthly: It seems that tacos are kind of saving your restaurant right now. Executive chef Fermín Nuñez went crazy with the “We are a taqueria now” Instagram stories, and there are specials aplenty, including a choco taco. How do you approach that from a wine perspective?
Celia Pellegrini: It’s actually been really fun. I’ve gotten to try out some really cool bottles in smaller amounts because I don’t have the restaurant markup. We can kind of explore bottles that maybe we wouldn’t have ever put on our list prior to that. [Customers] are looking at the menu online. We have somewhat limited service for dine-in right now. Everyone orders everything up-front. It’s a little less communication than normal. But we’ve taken that and kind of focused on descriptions. We’ve just tried to get really creative with how the conversation surrounding wine is going on right now, since people aren’t inside and I can’t just walk up to a table and have that conversation with them.
TM: Do you give suggestions to customers who are ordering online?
CP: Yeah, absolutely. If you look online, you’ll see that I now describe every wine with two descriptions. And then there’s a bio about the wine underneath it. That was something that we never really did [before COVID-19]. But now we’ve created that kind of database. That was really fun, tasting all these wines and thinking, what are the two words that really matter to people and make them understand how to pair this with whatever they want?
TM: Suerte’s signature taco is the suadero, a complex preparation with a thin cut of brisket. What do you pair with something like that?
CP: Our suaderos are very fun, somewhat complicated. Ours is not just brisket like you might find in a street-style taco. They have a soy component. They have a fish sauce component. They have a chile component. They have an avocado on top. So they are, let’s say, a flavor bomb. But what I focus on with our list and with our servers is to look past trying to pair every single flavor together, because if you tried to do that with a taco like the suadero you would just fail. There are so many amazing, really aggressive flavors in that taco. At that point, you’re kind of just looking to find a wine to balance them out, not pair perfectly.
So first I’ll start with: What kind of wine do you want? You want red wine, you want white wine, you want rosé? You can find a wine in every single one of those categories that’s going to work for you. If people are traditionally margarita drinkers, we can find a white wine that is going to pair so perfectly. Because so many white wines have those really bright citrus notes and salinic notes and do that same thing that margaritas do, which is cut through the fat and kind of lift your palate in between.
TM: Any advice for pairing spicy food and wine?
CP: We serve a lot of goat and lamb, alternative protein styles that I love. And with those I typically will pick red wines with really earthy and savory notes. A rule that I learned very early on pairing with Mexican food is that spice and tannin don’t mesh well together. A lot of our ingredients are focused on fresh peppers and chiles and a lot of heat. But tannin is a property that actually dries your mouth out. If you drink a really high-tannin wine like a cabernet with spicy food, even like our suadero, that spice gets really hot and kind of unbearable. Otherwise, you can definitely pair red wines with spicy foods. I think most people jump to pair spicy foods with sweet wines like rieslings. But if you’re a pure red wine drinker and you want a light, juicy, pinot noir, that’ll pair really well with all of our meat and spiciness as well.
TM: What would you recommend for the calabaza (squash) taco?
CP: That one is pretty versatile. We have an albariño wine that we love on our menu with a little bit of residual sugar. That’s super fun. It’s got just a touch of sweetness and kind of pairs really well. The calabaza taco has a little bit of sediment in them, so you’ve got like a salty and cheesy note. You’ve got that roasted flavor of the calabaza. And then an albariño has this really nice brightness and then a tiny bit of sweetness that pairs really well with those kinds of dishes.
TM: What about the choco taco?
CP: The Oloroso sherry. It’s oxidized and takes on really nice nutty full-bodied flavors that would pair well with the cinnamon mousse and peanut-caramel toppings.
TM: Is there a wine that you fall back on when someone’s having trouble ordering curbside or ordering dine-in and saying, “I don’t really know what I want”?
CP: There is a grape called país. And I love it. I have it in a red version, I have it in a white version. In Chile and South America [you can buy it as] J. Bouchon País. In Mexico and California, it’s known as mission. In Spain, it’s known as Listán. It has all of these different iterations and grows in all of these regions that share a similar flavor profile. You pair a wine from the region with a food from the region that it grows in. That grape in particular is really versatile, really beautifully weighted. It doesn’t have these huge notes, but it’s friendly with all of those foods. That’s our house wine, which is pretty recent.
TM: What do you say to people who might be intimidated by wine or find it snobby?
CP: That’s been like my whole mission at Suerte, is creating conversation and education. I focus so much more on the story behind our winemakers than I do on flavor profile. And I’ve encouraged my staff to do the same. As the person picking their wine, I know what it tastes like and I know what it pairs with. But I don’t focus on that when I’m talking to people. I focus on why it’s so cool that, for example, this bottle is run by all women for generations from this tiny plot of land that they do everything on. And that’s where I find people to connect with. You really should pay attention to the label you’re drinking and know where it comes from and who made it. And at that point, it’s no longer snobby. It’s you giving a shit about what you’re consuming.
That particular wine [owned by women] is a Champagne, actually. It’s J. Lassalle. They are amazing. It was owned by a guy named J. Lassalle and when he died, his wife took over the entire operation and then her daughter came in and started helping her with that. Her great-great-granddaughter is now the winemaker and runs all the operations.
TM: Will we see more Mexican wines paired with Mexican food?
CP: Absolutely. That’s been something that we’ve been trying to do for a while, but to find Mexican wine in the U.S. has been really difficult because of import-export regulations. Especially Mexican wine that has that integrity that I was talking about. So one of the only Mexican wines we’ve really been able to find consistently is Bichi [from Tecate in the state of Baja California]. Since day one, we’ve tried to carry that. But everybody else wants it too. [Mexican wines] get gobbled up so quickly because there’s nothing else competing with them in the American market.
TM: You’ve shared what you’d pair with specific dishes. What would you pair with a corn tortilla by itself?
CP: That’s so great. I am pretty infamous at work for stealing corn tortillas and just eating them with butter. I think honestly champagne would go really well with a corn tortilla with butter. Champagne has this really bready, yeasty, toasty note with it. Because it spends so much time aging, that and the corn could be really nice together.
TM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
CP: More wine and tacos!
More Tips From Celia Pellegrini
1. Start with proteins. “For red meats, stick with light, bright reds, such as the mouthwatering Touriga Nacional from Adrienne Ballou’s Lightsome Wines in the Texas Hill Country. With chicken and seafood, I love Spanish whites like vinho verde and albariño—anything with high acid and a little bit of salinity, just like you find in a margarita. Southold Farm and Cellar in Fredericksburg makes an albariño called Sing Sweet Things that fits this bill perfectly.”
2. Take inspiration from drinks you already enjoy with Mexican food. “Why do people pair margaritas, palomas, and lagers with Mexican food? Because the flavors work well together, so I find wines that echo those same notes. When it comes to street food, I typically want to drink a Mexican Coke, Sprite, or Jarritos because it’s bright and refreshing with a little bit of acid and a little bit of fruit or sweetness. That’s why you always see them around taco stands. Lambruscos and pétillant naturels (pet nats) work really well with simple street tacos. Pet nats often have similar notes that are light, fresh, and make your mouth water a little bit as the bubbles refresh the fatty texture of the tacos. One of my favorites, from Tecate, Mexico, is the Bichi Pet Mex.”
3. Choose wines that echo the flavors of Mexican foods. “Mexican cooking is really complex and layered, particularly when you look at dishes like mole negro. There are notes of dried fruit, chiles, chocolate, and more, which makes it difficult to find a wine that fits. I typically pick one note to focus on. With mole negro, I’ve had success pairing several Chilean wines, because they have these really beautiful pepper notes that remind me of the chiles in mole negro. Mexican cooking has a lot of chiles, and while I don’t often find wines that remind me of the dried chiles of Mexico, I can often find wines with notes of pepper and jalapeño.”
4. Go for bubbles, but with caution. “Bubbles do a great job of balancing out fat, but they can also exacerbate spice. If you are going to go with bubbles, go with something with a lot of fruit. The fruit notes will stand up to the bold flavors of the chiles and spice. William Chris Vineyards’ pétillant naturel rosé is the perfect balance of bubbles and fruit.”
5. Skip the tannins. “There are two faithful guidelines that I stick to pretty much every time. The first is that you should drink something you enjoy alongside the food that you enjoy. There are so many ‘rules’ in wine pairings that it’s easy to get caught up in the nuances, but never drink something you don’t like just because it’s the ‘right’ pairing. That said, when pairing wine with Mexican food, do skip high-tannin reds. Tannins make your mouth dry, and the last thing you want when you’re eating spicy foods is to not be able to flush out the spices.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.