I’m sure it happens now and then, but it must be a rare occurrence when someone says, “You know what? I could really go for a turkey sandwich.”
Turkey sandwiches get ordered in restaurants and whipped up in home kitchens nonstop, but they do so in the same way that shoes get tied. From memory. Without much care or much thought. They fill a need the way a night light does.
But a burger. How many times have you been in a restaurant when someone closes a menu early and says to the universe, “I’m going with a big ol’ burger” or “I think I need a burger.”
Is that bold proclamation, that declaration of need, delivered with a sprinkle of apology because a burger with cheese and a big puffy bun is perhaps not the healthiest choice? Or is it delivered with bravado, announcing to the world that this diner is treating herself to one of the most effortlessly satisfying food creations carnivores have ever come up with?
My guess is it’s a little bit of both. A good hamburger is an indulgence. It is also pretty much always a little decadent, rich and hearty, which makes it a natural match for red wine. Sure, some white wines could work, and lots of sparkling wines too. But come on, let’s drink some red wine with our red meat. OK, one sparkler.
Below are some classic wine styles (and bottle recommendations) that pair with burgers, plus a couple of not-so-classic picks that worked well recently with a variety of burger styles – from a simple Swiss cheeseburger with all-American condiments, to a black-truffle-mayo-and-fried-egg stunner, to a bison burger with cheddar, caramelized onions and wasabi mayo.
I would never suggest a ho-hum wine just because burgers are, at the end of the night, just hot sandwiches with toppings. But I’d rather spend less on wine for burgers than I would on wine for a more intricate plate of vittles. With that in mind, only one of these 10 bottles rings up higher than $20.
Zinfandel is one of the all-time classic burger wines. Big, jammy, juicy and spicy, it’s almost as if it were invented for this most-American of sandwiches. If you are going with a classic pairing, why not go with one of the grape’s most renowned producers, Ravenswood? The 2013 Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel ($18.50) sources fruit from Sonoma County, mostly from the zin haven of Dry Creek Valley. This wine has comforting raspberry, blackberry, vanilla and spice with a dash of elegance. You might also try the 2013 Mettler Family Vineyards Epicenter Old Vine Zinfandel ($20) from Lodi, which again is full of blackberry but also cola, earthiness and smoke.
Encouraging people to shake a particular steak sauce onto their hamburgers instead of ketchup, a classic TV advertising campaign went something like this: “Is a hamburger made of ground ham? No — it’s made of ground steak.” As long as it is not a tannic powerhouse, a California cabernet sauvignon, best friend of the juicy steak, is probably going to be a good match for your burger too. Try the 2014 Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon ($17) from the North Coast. Black cherry, cloves, cocoa and enough acidity to keep everything lively and not too heavy.
Argentines love their beef, and they wouldn’t dream of eating one of their famous steaks without a glass of malbec. Naturally, malbec is also a great burger wine, with its velvety plum, blackberry, chocolate and earth. The 2014 Trapiche Oak Cask Malbec ($13) from the Mendoza region of Argentina is pleasantly gamy and jammy, full of black cherry and tobacco. Also from Mendoza, the 2014 Domaine Bousquet Gaia ($20), a silky blend of 50 percent malbec, 45 percent syrah and 5 percent cabernet sauvignon, is full of blackberry, mushroom and black pepper spice.
Can you imagine not seasoning a hamburger patty with a little bit of salt and black pepper? This is where the Rhone grape varieties come into play, especially the powerful and legendary syrah, which can range from floral to leathery, often with a bite of pepper. If you wanted lively red fruit, minerality, herbs, incense and pepper, you could try the deliciously layered 2013 Presqu’ile Syrah ($35) from California’s Santa Maria Valley. To save some money and still get a very nice wine full of bright raspberries, blue fruits, spice and suppleness, pick the 2012 E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone ($15), which is 50 percent syrah, 45 percent grenache and 5 percent mourvedre.
With richness and a silky mouthfeel, merlot is sort of the wine equivalent of a milkshake in this pairing scenario — if you consider that some people like the fizz and tang of soda with a burger, and others opt for a mouth-coating chocolate shake. The 2014 Toad Hollow Vineyards Merlot ($16) from Sonoma County offers cranberry, blue fruits, a chocolate finish and a lush, ultra-softness. Look for “Richard McDowell’s Selection” on the bottom of the label.
For something a little lighter and a touch unconventional, try one of the following from Italy. The 2013 Tascante Ghiaia Nera ($20) from Sicily is made of nerello mascalese grapes and has soft tannins, lively acidity, red fruits, and a touch of orange and licorice. The Cleto Chiarli e Figli Vecchia Modena Premium Lambrusco ($15) from Emilia-Romagna is the opposite-equivalent of a milkshake with a burger. This sparkler is pleasantly tart and tongue-cleansing, with cherry, citrus, anise and a frothiness that will cut through the richness of just about any burger with ease.
Try a burger with bubbles, and it might become your default pairing. Plus, you can enjoy a glass while you’re waiting for the grill to heat up.