The Taqueria Rooted in Terroir

The Taqueria Rooted in Terroir

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The Taqueria Rooted in Terroir

At Austin, Texas’ acclaimed Nixta Taquería, Fernando Casal has translated his love for soil into one of the country's most exciting wine lists.

The Rebel Rebel team, from left to right: Molly O'Handley, Kyéra Sterling, Lauren Friel, and Marie-Louise Friedland.

BY PAULA FORBES
PHOTOS BY ISAAC OBIOMA

Fernando Casal, wine coordinator at Austin, Texas’ Nixta Taquería—the funky backyard taco shop helmed by James Beard Award-winning chef Edgar Rico—used to be a geographer. And it's through his work with soil that, in many ways, Casal understands wine as an agricultural product. Last year, when he signed on to curate the taqueria’s wine list—picking up where co-owner Sara Mardanbigi left off—his intent was to spotlight producers who ferment with indigenous yeast, taking a hands-off approach to winemaking that he believes truly allows the personality of the grapes to shine,while prioritizing those who respect both their employees and their land. This ethos, he felt, was also aligned with Nixta’s robust fermentation program—the restaurant employs an in-house director of fermentation who is responsible for hot sauces, traditional Mexican drinks like pineapple-based tepache, and more—noting that it would be a “disgrace” to serve wines that aren’t made through similarly traditional techniques. And while Nixta was ahead of the curve with its low-intervention wine list in 2019, since then the city has welcomed in many more.

Located among the historically Black and Latino neighborhoods of East Austin, Casal wanted to ensure that his wine list spoke to the nearby community as much as it did to out-of-towners attracted by Nixta’s considerable accolades. His answer was to design an affordably-priced bottle selection that would suit the restaurant’s varied clientele, including just a handful of thoughtfully-curated options from around the world. After all, Nixta is a counter-service restaurant where diners don’t have a ton of time to ponder wine.

Casal’s intent was to create a wine list that spotlights producers who ferment with indigenous yeast, while prioritizing those who respect their employees and their land.

When building his list, Casal had a few priorities beyond wine that tastes great. He wanted to honor producers who have an “honest relationship to the land,” as he puts it, and those who pay their employees fairly. For example, right now he’s pouring an orange wine from Octagono in Guanajuato, Mexico—the winemakers are so serious about using traditional Georgian winemaking techniques that they don’t use any electricity in the process, crushing their grapes by foot and fermenting the wine in clay vessels buried in the ground. Nixta’s bottles aren’t limited to a specific country or region, which means that Casal has plenty of room for a spread that spans Mexico, South America, Central Asia, Lebanon, Syria, Georgia, Armenia, and beyond.

This broad sourcing will serve him well because Casal has a major creative challenge ahead of him: Rico will soon launch a tasting menu titled Flor Xakali—named to honor his mother—on Friday and Saturday nights. And where there’s a tasting menu, there are wine pairings. He’ll use this opportunity as a chance to dive even deeper into the list he’s written for the taco counter, offering wines that inspire thought and discussion.

For example, he might pair a dish reflecting the traditional food culture of Mexico with a Georgian wine that reflects that country’s historic wine culture. It’s about connecting deeply-rooted agricultural regions and fermented flavors from around the world.

The strawberry and citrus notes in Kamara Winery’s orange Pét-Nat complement the “immediate savory and nutty” flavors found in Nixta’s charred cauliflower tacos.

So what pairs well with tacos? “There are a lot of people,” says Casal, laughing, “who see international foods and they only want to pair it with something like a Riesling—Thai food, Riesling. Mexican food, Riesling. Nigerian food, Riesling.” Thankfully, he’s a bit more creative than that. In particular, he loves Cabernet Franc, and says it’s “a match made in heaven” with Rico’s duck carnitas tacos.

How about cauliflower tacos with romesco? It’s "low-key my favorite thing on the menu,” admits Casal, who picks northern Greece-based Kamara Winery’s Blooming Mountain Pét-Nat as the ideal pairing. The fizzy orange wine’s strawberry and citrus notes play nicely with the “immediate savory and nutty” flavors of the plancha-seared cauliflower and pine nuts, he notes. “I fell in love with it because it was just so alive,” he says of the crushable bottle, which is from a family-run winery that specializes in ancient varieties, like Assyrtiko, Xinomavro, and Malagousia. Winemaker Dimitrios Kioutsoukis originally made this wine for the weddings of his two daughters, and it eventually became a fixture in his line-up. “It’s a summer poolside, Austin-heat kind of wine,” describes Casal. “It’s light and fun and refreshing, and very, very beautiful.”

Fermented flavors that draw on cultural traditions are the backbone of Nixta’s culinary philosophy and, in parallel, help inform and define what just might be the country's most intriguing taqueria wine list.

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