Mistakenly associated with Coronas and margaritas, the Riviera Maya is actually home to many restaurants with lengthy wine lists as well as wine bars set off the beaten path. Some even carry a torch for Mexico by pouring wines produced in the country's wine regions. Take a sharp detour from the large resorts in Cancun and head South to Playa del Carmen (45 minutes from Cancun International Airport) and Tulum (about 90 minutes), where locals (many of them ex-pats) support the local restaurant scene. Pair those wines with a view of sugar-white sand beaches and turquoise waters.
GrandVelas All Suites & Spa Resort, Playa Del Carmen
Don't let GrandVelas's all-inclusive resort descriptor stop you from booking a stay or making a reservation at one of its six restaurants. Cucina de Autour, open for dinner only, is run by two of Mexico's most celebrated chefs (Mikel Alonso and Bruno Oteiza) in all things molecular gastronomy. Each night, a food-and-wine pairing of eight courses is offered (and included in the nightly room rate—all-inclusive is starting to sound better, huh). Slip into the intimate, modern (think mostly white with funky art works) dining room and wait for little surprises to appear in front of you, like monochromatic green sea bass, porrupatata soup with a touch of smoke, or a side of "paper corn" with scallop and shrimp. All of this is paired with selections from the wine list that include options from Mexico, as well as 2004 Opus One Red Table Wine (Napa Valley, California), 1995 Taittinger Blanc de Blancs (Reims, France), and picks from Spain, Chile, Argentina, and Italy. What's more, 27 of the wines available to resort guests and are included in the all-inclusive rate.
La Casa del Aqua, Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen's Fifth Avenue—a pedestrian-only street two blocks in from the Caribbean Sea—is lined with dozens of restaurants, so much that it's hard to pick one (or two, or three). Head straight to La Casa del Agua if it's a good wine list you're after. Open since 2001, it's been a mainstay for wine-aficionado locals who want more than tacos and a beer and, most of all, a sophisticated atmosphere. Choose a table in the ground-floor dining room, or go for sea breezes on the roof garden or terrace. The wine list features 200-some labels from 12 countries, including Baja California, Mexico, and Argentina, even high-end gems like 1996 Chateau Petrus (Pomerol, France). Chef Miguel Luna can craft a tasting menu just for your palate with a little bit of notice. Otherwise, the menu features upscale Mexican specialties like tamarind and chipotle prawns, tuna and sea scallops ceviche, and huitlacoche beef filet with grilled nopal, a fun challenge for wine pulling off fantastic wine pairings.
El Tabano, Tulum
Open since 2008, El Tabano is rustic—think 20 tables in an outdoor space powered by a generator. But it also caters to wine lovers and gourmet-food fans. Written on wall-size chalkboards is the 30-selection wine list, with most bottles coming from Spain and Mexico. Menu items are the result of an Italian chef and range from thin-crust pizzas topped with ingredients like squid and mussels to tapas like black-bean salad with chia. Straddling the casualness of a beach village with spectacular gastronomy, and in typical Tulum eco-chic style, guests to El Tabano enter through an archway off a rustic road, and are ushered into a canopied dining room.
Even the most seasoned travelers to Mexico's Riviera Maya don't know about the secret hidden inside Xcaret, an adventure-minded, privately owned archeological theme park. (Think snorkeling, swimming with dolphins, zip lining, and a butterfly pavilion.) Vino de Mexico is a massive wine cave housing 400 labels of wine (2,900 bottles) hidden beneath the park, and one of Xcaret's official attractions. All of the wines come from Mexico and are available for sale, along with Riedel stemware. If you have the time, reserve a wine-pairing lunch ($39), matching five wines with five small plates. (One of the small plates in rotation is a queso cappuccino, with the cheese coming from Oaxaca.) The lunch, which includes a talk with the sommelier, is offered at 1 pm, 3 pm, and 5 pm daily.
Want more Riviera Maya? Check out our list of Mayan ruins to visit before the "end of the world."
Photo credits: Grand Velas courtesy of GrandVelas All Suites & Spa Resort; La Casa del Aqua courtesy of La Casa del Aqua; Xcaret courtesy of Xcaret