On Caribbean and Caribbean-American tables, flavorful tamarind, coconut, curry, ginger, clove and dried black mushrooms harmonize with proteins like goat, oxtail, lamb and an array of seafood.
Given this bounty of possibilities, why don’t we see more wines paired with these dishes?
Andre Fowles, Jamaica-born chef of Miss Lily’s in New York City, and a three-time Food Network “Chopped” champion believes most islanders favor rums, beers, and cocktails because of the region’s history of sugarcane and rum production. It’s a regional version of the wine pairing adage “What grows together goes together.
However, wine culture isn’t completely absent from the region, says Nickie Jurado, a Puerto Rican culinary consultant for food and wine brands and host of the podcast Kitchen Scene Investigator.
“It was the Catholic Church that introduced wine to the people of the region, as going to mass and ‘drinking the blood of Christ’ was mandatory,” says Jurado of the island’s 16th-century colonial period. “With the evolution of Criollo culture—those born on the island of Spanish parents—adoption of a taste for Spanish wines ensued.”
Jurado believes “machismo” has prevented wine culture from proliferating further, noting that “holding a stemmed glass is seen as too feminine” in some Puerto Rican circles. Still, as travel and exposure grow, “access to wine and wine knowledge will continue to grow,” she says.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to incorporate wine into Caribbean meals. Here are four tips from Caribbean wine and food experts.
“A good rule of thumb for pairing wine with traditional island cuisine is to choose varietals that complement the bold flavors of the dish, rather than wines that will intensify its spicy seasonings,” says Fowles.
Balancing spice is key.
“For the world-famous Jamaican jerk chicken, most people would reach for a cold, refreshing Red Stripe beer to counteract the strong, hot pepper spices,” says Fowles, “but a crisp and fruity, off-dry Columbia Valley rosé would also pair well.”
The high acidity and slight sweetness of cool-climate rosé can help offset the heat of both dry-rubbed and wet-jerk marinades.
Full-Bodied Wines Can Balance Big Flavors
Caribbean braised meats like oxtail tend to be rich, so Fowles suggests pairing them with wines like a younger Barolo.
“While the fattiness of the oxtail helps tame the strong tannins in a young Barolo, [the wine is] bold enough to stand up to a dish as rich as oxtail,” says Fowles.
He also recommends a full-bodied glass of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon to pair with pelau, a pigeon peas dish beloved on Trinidad, Haiti and other islands.
“Pelau is full of pepper, bay leaf and thyme, so the acidity, as well as the full, round flavors of a Cab, will match the hot, peppery taste,” he says.
Frituras are a savory traditional Latin Caribbean fried finger food prepared with cheese, dough, sazón, sofrito and bay leaves.
“I like pairing them with a bottle of Rioja Reserva,” says Jurado. “The medium body and acidity of the Tempranillo stand up to the crunchy texture and weightiness of the fritura, while the age from the American oak barrels complements the layered seasonings of adobo, sazón and green sofrito.”
Keep it Simple
A traditional Caribbean specialty common to multiple islands, mofongo is made of deep-fried green plantain that’s then mashed with other ingredients such as seafood, garlic and pork.
Rumba Kitchen, a Puerto Rican restaurant in Los Angeles, serves a shrimp-studded version atop a creamy truffled sauce. Jurado suggests pairing this sort of full-flavored seafood dish with a light-bodied Rías Baixas Albariño because the dry white wine has “faint salinity, high acidity and crispness in the finish” to complement the light protein and heavy sauce.
Chillo frito is a fried red snapper with sofrito beurre blanc and citrus jicama sauce. It hails from Puerto Rico and is a traditional classic fried seafood dish that is normally paired with tostones or coconut rice.
Jurado says this dish “calls for bubbles.” She suggests a Cava brut rosé to open up the nuanced layers of the slightly acidic buttercream fish sauce, noting that the effervescence of the wine “adds a quirky twist when paired with the crispy texture.”