What Wine to Drink with a Burger

Paul Blow

What wine did you drink with your Independence Day burgers? In the wine world, the term burger wine is used derisively. The implication is that being paired with a hamburger amounts to slumming for a good wine (in the last scene of Sideways, Miles drinks a 1961 Cheval Blanc at a fast-food joint) or is perfectly appropriate for simple (i.e., “low class”), cheap wine. But a burger is one of the noblest foods ever conceived. A wine should be honored to be consumed in such a presence.

Nevertheless, the typical American burger tends to be so laden with condiments that its flavor can amount to an incoherent jumble, and be hard to pair. I used to drink beer as a default, but lately I find myself wanting a glass of wine with a burger. I’ve been doing some experimenting and have a few suggestions.

First, how do you like your burger? The salty and sharp style, laden with mustard and mayo, extra dill pickles? Or on the sweeter side, with ketchup, fresh tomatoes, and sweet caramelized onions?

The combination of tomatoes (raw and in ketchup) with beef is heaven for some juicy red. However, the typical “burger wine”—a cheap Zinfandel or Shiraz—tends to be missing exactly what the burger needs: structure. A red with both acid and some tannin—not too much of either—is perfect. The acid cuts through the richness of the meat and the sweetness of the toppings, while the tannin helps organize all the flavors. I also tend to prefer nice, fat, red fruit in the wine over black fruit in this situation.

Try a Spanish wine from Bierzo. The Mencía grape is just what the burger ordered: good acidity, a wash of tannin, and nice, juicy red fruit. The Luna Beberide even comes close to traditional burger-wine pricing. Zinfandel can be good here, but only a few Zins have the structure and acid I’m talking about—Bella, Ottimino, Hartford, Outpost, and Mazzocco come to mind. And Chianti can be great with burgers. It’s got refreshing acidity and usually dense but soft tannins and is typically juicy enough to wash down even the moistest burger. And most Chiantis feature tons of red-cherry fruit. There are lots of great versions, but this one from Querceto hits on both price and flavor.

For the more savory burger, the equation changes a bit. Now you want a wine with some pointy edges to combat the saline sting of mustard and pickles. Here we’re talking even more acidity but fewer tannins (generally excess tannin makes high-acid wines seem shrill and hard). These will be lighter wines. Pinot Noir is a good bet, but steer toward the cheaper ones: Expensive California and Oregon Pinots tend to be superripe and suffused with new oak. For instance, MacMurray Ranch from Northern California makes a great wine at about $20 that’s got loads of red-cherry fruit, bright acidity, and low tannins; it’s great with a burger. Another option is Barbera, from northern Italy. The Briccotondo from Fontanafredda is astounding quality for the price.

And finally, for the pickle-laden burger, don’t be afraid to go with a white wine. A good white will have all the acidity you want, no tannins, and superclean flavors. A nice Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc, a Verdejo from the Spanish region of Rueda, or even a round Pinot Gris, like Ponzi’s from Oregon, will do right by you and your burger.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.