By Rick Riozza

Neato Burrito was really a character; he was a good friend of mine.  I couldn’t understand a single word he said but I helped him drink his wine; and he always had some mighty fine wine.  And they say literary license is a terrible thing to waste.

Well Joy to the World!—the holiday season is upon us, and in these Coachella parts, that means the Indio International Tamale Festival is coming up!  Celebrating the 30th year of the festival, it will be held at the Miles Avenue Park in the city of Indio from December 1st to the 4th.  The event is free to attend and open to everyone!

Now probably thirty years ago, the tamales served may well have been only pork, beef, chicken and cheese, and maybe a dessert tamale made with raisins or pineapple.  These days, of course, the cielo is the limit, with tamales made from everything to from escargot to Tasmanian Devil.  Last year Texas Monthly wrote that there were 350 varieties of tamales.  Wellcome on!  There may be that many in the big Lone Star State, but we’re sure there’s a lot more here just in Southern California—bring it on!


Back in the 70s & 80s in Los Angeles, nearby the state and federal courthouses off Main St., there was an old looking burrito stand selling breakfast and lunch burritos to many a judge and lawyer rushing in and out to work.  And one could see the simple Neato Burrito signage from anywhere in the surrounding buildings.  Their burrito was pretty hefty, and, you’d have to be careful—immediate consequences notwithstanding.

Anyway … be it burritos, tacos, or tamales, it always seems to be on the mind of us wine enthusiasts on what’s the best wine to pair with this traditional Mexican fare.  And of course the easy answer is: the wine you enjoy already whilst feeding on the spicy side of life.

So many of us baby-boomers grew up thinking, with Mexican food, we had to drink ice-cold Mexican beer along with a shot or two of Tequila.  And actually—I could still live with that!  But this is a wine column, and indeed, we’ve previously written on tamale wine pairings: Cold Duck Today—Hot Tamale! where we had fun suggesting Andre’s Cold Duck chilled-up for that spicy tamale registering over one-thousand Scolville units!

At a minimum, I guess there are some A, B, Cs to Mexican food wine pairing:

  1. a) When it comes to spice, the spicier the food, the colder and sweeter the wine can be. Also, lower alcohol wines and moderate tannins can dissolve the heat of the capsaicin.
  2. b) When in doubt on red or white, most of the time you can match the color of the wine with the color of the meat. Red meat? Red wine. White meat? White wine.
  3. c) As with Italian fare—go with the sauce: red with red wine, green or white with white wine. Foods with a lot of green herbs tend to beg for wines with higher acidity and more herbaceous flavors—Sauvignon Blanc being a great example. Because of the spice in most Mexican dishes, we know we can always make a mad dash to the market, and grab a really chilled bottle of Brut Champagne or a decent dry sparkling wine.  Cold, cleansing, bubbly, and satisfying, it’s the go-to drink for the holidays and for hot tamales.

When it comes to the neato burrito, all of those considerations above will work.  Particularly though, when it comes to a beef or pork stuffed burrito, we really like the Spanish Tempranillo Rioja red, with its plum, boysenberry, and black cherry notes and black pepper & earth; the Italian Sangiovese with its fresh earth, herbs and iron notes, and the Italian Montepulciano d’Abruzzo with its juicy blackfruits and cherries; and the Chilean Carmenère, a firm red with cherry, raspberry, plum, spicy black pepper and green herb.

Suggestions for the following traditional tamales are:

Cheese and Jalapeno Tamales: Rioja Crianza—it’s the youngest of the aged Riojas, inexpensive but with tasty fruit that matches perfectly with soft cheeses and has its own green note to match the pepper.

Beef Tamale with Red Sauce: California Central Coast Pinot Noir/young light Merlot, or, go the other way with a chilled-up Fino Sherry. The Pinot and Merlot fit like a soft shoe with this tamale. The dry fino Sherry is the sexy choice and puts you at the head of the class.

Pork Salsa Verde Tamale: A Mâcon-Villages or red Malbec. The MaconV is a Chardonnay from Burgundy. The famed Pouilly-Fuissé is very good one with the tamale-salsa combo and you can have fun at the table by mispronouncing the name. Malbec always goes with leaner-type meats and is a good red wine surprise with pork tamales.

Sweet Tamales: A sweet Oloroso Sherry. This sweet Sherry adds rich flavors of caramel and cocoa and a holiday nutty note to the dish.

For real wine snobs, party kids and every interested vino lover around, perhaps the quintessential wine to go with the “real hot tamale” is the German Riesling, which include the Kabinett—this can be dry or off dry and goes with everything! Spatlese for the spicy tamale; and, Auslese for extremely spicy.

German Riesling is amazing with spicy foods because the sugar in the wine helps to counteract the spice. The wine’s fruit flavors are set off by the corn and meat filling of the tamale. The pairing is a beautiful contrast between savory/spicy and sweet. The wine also has incredible acidity that helps to wash the food off your tongue and refresh the palate.  Buen Provecho!! Salud!