There's really only one official menu for Memorial Day weekend: grilling. Now's the time when we perfect our best burger recipes (it is National Burger Month, after all) and fire up the grill. And while most of you might automatically reach for a beer to go with that burger, let us open your mind to our new favorite food and wine pairing: burgers and wine.
We asked Bruce Sanderson, Wine Spectator senior editor and tasting director, to share with us the best ways to pair burgers and wine just in time for Memorial Day; after all, Wine Spectator just tackled the subject themselves. Read on to find out the best wines to buy for your grilling needs — you just might be surprised.
The Daily Meal: What’s the general rule for pairing burgers with wine — and what’s been done in the past?
Bruce Sanderson: Bold, fruity reds are the classic, go-to wines for beef burgers. Wines like California zinfandel add a spicy element, while syrah from the Rhône Valley or Australian shiraz brings a peppery quality to the match. Stick to wines that are lush and not too tannic, like Argentine malbec, although a higher fat content in the beef can handle tannins.
One of my favorite wines with a good burger is Fratelli Oddero’s Barbera d'Alba from Italy’s Piedmont region. Its rich cherry and black currant flavors, high acidity, and low tannin content work well with the charred flavors and your basic toppings.
With a lamb burger, I would go to cabernet sauvignon or a good cabernet franc from the Loire Valley in France. Charles Joguet, Bernard Baudry and Catherine & Pierre Breton are good producers of cabernet franc from Chinon. A good côtes du rhône, like St.-Cosme, would also work here.
TDM: What burger and wine pairings are new and fresh this year?
BS: What I see are burgers moving upscale, with Angus prime, Kobe, or Wagyu beef and better-quality ingredients, like wild mushrooms, cheeses that go beyond the basic Cheddar, Swiss, Monterey Jack, or blue, and exotic toppings like foie gras, garlic aioli, and avocado.
As far as wine pairings, there’s a lot to choose from and young sommeliers like to find more offbeat pairings like lambrusco, a fizzy red from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region that comes in dry and off dry styles, or indigenous varietals from southern Italy like nero d’avola, nerello mascalese, and frappato.
TDM: How do your burger toppings affect pairings?
BS: The sweeter the toppings, the more you need a wine with acidity. So ketchup, sweet relish, caramelized onions, for example can add sweetness, requiring a high acid red like barbera or chianti.
Smoky and salty toppings, such as bacon, blue cheese, and grilled vegetables can be paired with a dry lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna. Producers like Tenuta Pederzana and Lini Oreste & Figli earn very good reviews in Wine Spectator blind tastings.
Toppings that aren’t too sweet, like Dijon-style mustard, sliced onions, fresh tomato, and lettuce are good with fruity wines like cru beaujolais (Marcel Lapierre’s Morgon), dolcetto (Luciano Sandrone Dolcetto d’Alba), or a lighter style pinot noir from Oregon, northern Italy, or Burgundy.
If you want to go spicy, with a hot sauce, salsa or fresh jalapeño, try to find a red low in alcohol. A little sweetness in the wine doesn’t hurt either. So an off dry lambrusco, beaujolais, or lighter-bodied syrah/shiraz will offset the sizzle.
Typical cheeses used on burgers like Cheddar, Gruyère, and Monterey Jack marry well with fruity reds like pinot noir, malbec, and syrah or blends like côtes du rhône.
TDM: What’s the most surprising varietal you can pair with a burger, and why?
It’s not a varietal, but rosé champagne. It’s full-bodied enough to stand up to the protein and most toppings and the bubbles add a cleansing effect. And it adds an element of luxury to the meal. The Moët & Chandon Brut Rosé Champagne Impérial NV is reasonably priced and widely available.
TDM: What do you prefer — beer with a burger, or wine with a burger?
BS: In a pinch, I wouldn’t turn down a good pilsener-style beer or IPA with a burger, but I find wine is less filling and can elevate the burger experience yet still be casual and fun.