The Hatch green chile occupies a space in the New Mexican psyche that people elsewhere reserve for religious cults, celebrity crushes and their regional definition of barbecue.
Such is the enthusiasm for this vegetable in New Mexico that it inspires an annual late-summer festival attended by 30,000 visitors who crown a chile queen and parade in the streets. The state university supports a Chile Pepper Institute. Chile peppers adorn the welcome signs at state borders. And the estimated value of the crop to the state economy is north of $57 million.
Chile lovers make everything from Christmas wreaths to ice cream with their beloved peppers. I guess it was only a matter of time before it turned up in a wine.
And so, a concoction bearing the warning label Hatch Green Chile Wine greeted me last month near the Fresh Market checkout. Chile pepper wine is, of course, a terrible idea. But I had to buy a bottle just to see how bad an idea it was.
I had planned to open it on a Thursday, but gripped with trepidation, I left the bottle on the kitchen counter and headed over to Wine Authorities to find something more inviting. Owner Craig Heffley asked what I was looking for. Sheepishly I ventured that I was looking for something that might compare to chile pepper wine.
Heffley gamely directed me toward the aperitifs. It was a small selection of European wines made with mixtures of herbs and spices. He explained that it’s not unheard of in the Old World for a region to put its stamp on a wine not only with the terroir of the grape but also by adding ingredients the evoke the place. I chose a bottle of white Cocchi Americano, mostly because I liked the candy-striped rooster on the label.
Let me make clear that these two wines could hardly differ more in quality and quaffability. What they have in common is that their creators share a robust enthusiasm for regional specialties. Cocchi Americano has been made for more than 100 years by blending the wine of the Asti region of Italy’s Piedmont and a special blend of herbs. Green chile wine is a newer creation, but the idea is to infuse a beverage with the essence of a place. Or maybe, to further the marketing aims of the chile pepper lobby. Could be both.
The Hatch Green Chile Wine turned out to be sweet, similar to a light-bodied Riesling that left just a touch of roasted pepper on the tongue. As with the green chile itself, the pepper taste is deep and mild, not hot and spicy. The aftertaste is strong and lingering but not entirely unpleasant. The label does not reveal what grape was abominated in the making of the wine, but just states that green chile is the key ingredient.
If you mix it with tomato juice to make a Bloody Mary, as a recipe card around the bottle’s neck suggests, it’s better. But at the end of the day, you’ll be left wondering why you didn’t just go out and get a bottle of pepper vodka, which makes a much more satisfying drink.
Cocchi is a much better idea. The nose is full of flowers and honey, and the strong licorice-like flavors of gentian and citrus zest give it the taste of Campari without the syrupy mouthfeel or bitter finish. It is heavier than an ordinary white, so mixing it with club soda, as the bottle directs, lends it a perfect touch of effervescence. It pairs well with gin in a cocktail, too, but I prefer it with just bubbles.
In this case, experience trumps innovation, but maybe a century from now, Hatch Green Chile Wine will be celebrated as a clever ingredient in creative cocktails. It could happen. Give it 100 years or so.
Amber Nimocks is a former food editor for The News & Observer. Reach her at email@example.com.