Yana Volfson of NYC's Cosme is writing the rulebook on pairing wine with Mexican cuisine.

By Carson Demmond
Updated June 12, 2017
Yana Volfson
Credit: Courtesy of Yana Volfson

Yana Volfson has given New Yorkers a reason to trade in their margaritas for wine. When she signed on to run the beverage program at Chef Enrique Olvera’s Cosme, pairing wine with Mexican fare was still largely uncharted territory, and she’s been able to taste her way to some surprising discoveries.

“If you think about the specific qualities of mezcal and tequila that make them obvious pairings for Mexican flavors, you can start to find overlying themes and wines that share those same traits,” says Volfson. “So, look to terroirs that produce smoky flavors – volcanic soils… schist… Acidity and salinity are also big factors; you want something that can cut through sweet creams, Oaxacan cheese, and avocados – the number one source of fat in Mexican food!”

The best part of her job? Experimentation. “When we first opened, I would overhear diners asking each other, ‘Are we even supposed to be thinking about wine with this food?’” she says. “Hearing that made me want to hit the table and taste them on all of these bottles to show them how so many different wines can be wonderful with Mexican cuisine. It almost became like a game.”

Here, she shares 12 bottles that prove wine and Mexican go hand in hand. “It’s all about having an open mind, and that’s what makes this project so unique,” she adds.

1. NV Christian Étienne Brut Tradition
“Christian Etienne is a grower in the Aube, so his Champagnes are predominantly Pinot Noir and really play off of those bold base notes of the grape variety. What I love about it in terms of pairing is that there’s a sweet-spiciness to the fruit and a funkiness that works with the full range of umami flavors on our menu – from the umami-sweet-oceanic notes of scallop crudo through the umami-rich-earthiness of our moles. There really isn’t anything that Champagne doesn’t work with here. Bubbles also help to absorb spice.”

2. Equipo Navazos La Bota de Manzanilla #55
“After visiting Mexico City, I came back with a better idea of the flavor vocabulary in Chef Enrique [Olvera’s] cooking; it looks to chiles as the primary source of seasoning. Sherry has the acidity and the salinity you want for that; it complements the earthy or heat components of however the chiles are being handled. This one is sourced by Equipo Navazos from Miguel Sanchez Ayala – a Bodega they’ve been working with for their Manzanilla collection for quite some time. It’s light and approachable, with these fragrant notes of almond and honey… basically the bottle of sherry that you want to have in your refrigerator at all times. It’s not so complex that it would overshadow simpler dishes or raw seafood, and I love the balance of Manzanilla with stuff like that.”

3. Bodegas Tradición Amontillado V.O.R.S. 30 Years
“With bolder dishes, where a Manzanilla might lose out to the flavors in the food, Amontillado lends itself to those deeper layers. This one from Bodegas Tradición still has that saltiness but also has more toasted notes and stewed fruit flavors. It can stand up to the Ayacote bean salad and the Enfrijoladas and even Mole Negra. It’s a pairing that has surprised so many people, and that’s what’s fun about this place.”

4. 2012 Domaine Matassa Côte Catalanes Blanc
“We poured this Roussillon white by the glass until the vintage ran out. Again, it’s from a maritime climate, so there’s an expression of salinity. And the winemaker – Tom Lubbe – is not shy when it comes to flavors; he’s definitely making rich wine. The tropical undertones that you get from Grenache Gris and Macabeu even remind me of Mexican fruits – like mangos and guavas. And all of that skin and lees contact that he introduces into this wine creates texture, which helps it absorb flavor from whatever you’re pairing with. With something like octopus, it’s fantastic.”

5. 2012 Raul Perez ‘Muti’ Rías Baixas Albariño
“When you start to get into Raul Perez’s wines, you find a minerality that a lot of people don’t associate with Albariño. The grape can have such complexity in the right hands. It has that oceanic thing plus a glycerin-y texture and concentration unlike any other wine from Rías Baixas that I’ve tasted. It’s one that you want to allow to come to temperature and keep on the table from the beginning to the end of your meal, even if you had thought about moving on to a red.”

6. 2012 Château de Béru ‘Clos Béru’ Chablis
“The Château de Béru wines are so pretty and so pure. We’re on Kimmeridgian soil here, so a lot of marine sediment… and you’re getting that classic Chablis smoke without the intervention of new oak, and an even greater richness on the palate from extended lees contact. If someone is looking for a white Burgundy, I love pulling this bottle and being able to present Chablis with something other than just razor acidity. There’s also a limeyness to Chablis that’s really nice with Mexican cuisine.”

7. 2012 Weingut Bründlmayer ‘Alte Reben’ Kamtal Grüner Veltliner
“I hadn’t been focused on Austrian wine at all in my wine buying previous to Cosme, and tasting Grüner Veltliner within the framework of these flavors has been such a surprise. Brundlmayer’s style is on the richer side – bordering tropical. What’s funny is despite the fact that the geographies and terroirs couldn’t be further from one another, the flavors in the wine – the savory mushroom notes… even fermented pineapple… these are all notes that you find in Mexican food.”

8. 1999 Domaine Aux Moines Savennières-Roche aux Moines
“Older vintages are fun things to experience and play with, but we also want vibrancy and freshness. Here, you still have that fresh acidity… but there’s also something more. There’s the richness of Chenin Blanc, the austerity of Savennieres, and in its maturity, it verges on this umami character that reminds me of corn. This might sound strange, but smelling this wine reminds me of picking up our tortillas and smelling them (people actually do that!). It’s also just an incredibly versatile wine and can handle the level of spice that we’re working with.”

9. 2014 Domaine Philippe Tessier ‘Nota Bene’ Cheverny
“Nota Bene is a 100% Gamay cuvée that Tessier only makes in the best years… and might be the best Gamay I’ve ever tasted. It’s that perfect balance of fresh fruit-punchiness, sanguinity, and earthiness. One of our most popular dishes on the menu is the duck carnitas, which are done Mexico City style: using sugars to break down the fat instead of salt… so it comes out sweeter than a classic French preparation of duck. And playing on that old school pairing of duck and Gamay, this wine has a brightness and floral side that works particularly well with those sweeter notes.”

10. 2005 La Rioja Alta Rioja Gran Reserva 904
“I remember falling in love with the 1995 vintage of this wine and have been chasing that taste experience ever since. Out of all of the Riojas we have on the list, this one stands out as particularly feminine and elegant. You get these notes of smoked meats, a plumminess, and it also takes on this blood orange character against the backdrop of spicier, more savory sauces and moles. Bright but bitter. It’s just a beautiful wine.”

11. 2011 Pittnauer ‘Ungerberg’ Burgenland Blaufränkisch
“Pittnauer’s style of Blaufränkish tends towards delicacy, but you still have a brawny, smoky core. It’s a little like Syrah in that respect. And what I love about this grape variety specifically with Mexican flavors is that it can take the spice and amplify it. So if you’re looking for that fun, spicy experience, this is a wonderful pairing, because it will highlight and let the spice elements linger.”

12. 2011 Domaine de la Pinte ‘Pinte Bien’ Arbois Poulsard
“I love seeing people taste Poulsard for the first time, because it’s so light in the glass – almost like a rosé in terms of color – and yet it packs so much flavor. This one has this pretty floral character and an umami expression that plays off of so many foods that are the color green: avocado and tarragon puree… Serrano peppers.... And it has this serious backbone of spice, so it can stand up to sweeter, fattier things like duck. It’s a bizarre little grape, and who knew it would pair so well with Mexican food?”