The Great Wine-and-Hamburger Taste-Off

In search of the perfect combo, just in time for Memorial Day
May 25, 2011

If your main course gets smeared all over your face and stains your shirt, but it's so tasty that you don't even care, what sort of wine should you drink? That’s definitely a Memorial Day sort of question. It’s not a day for being tidy. The only reason the holiday is celebrated outside is because it’s close to the hose.

Hamburgers are the all-American choice on Memorial Day. Each year, as summer approaches, I set out to find some of the best wines to enjoy with a burger. The key word here is “enjoy.” If you can’t have fun trying different wines with a hamburger, then you’re taking yourself (and the wine) way too seriously.

I’m convinced that hamburger wines shouldn’t cost a lot, but who am I to suggest you can’t enjoy a 2000 Mouton-Rothschild while devouring a juicy beef patty?

The wine will be red—obviously. If you prefer washing down a burger with your favorite Chardonnay, I won’t argue with you. I’ll roll my eyes until I’m nauseated, but I won’t argue. No, you need a red that will enhance the grilled beef and chunky bun. The style of wine depends on how you stack your hamburger.

A Merlot or light-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon will do fine if the burger is dressed simply, but the more onions and mustard and pickles and tomatoes you layer on, the more you need a flexible red. I’ve found that full-flavored Beaujolais or New World Pinot Noir work well when the burger is topped with plenty of accoutrements like mayo and cheese.

For me, the best overall burger wines have enough structure and tannins to handle the savory beef but are loaded with lush, fresh fruit to balance all those other wonderful flavors. I reach for a medium-bodied California Zinfandel or Rhône-style blend, Malbec from Argentina or Spanish Garnacha.

This year I put a few wines to the test with a burger from Five Guys dressed with cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, ketchup and mayonnaise. I didn’t taste the wines blind, just for the record. Two wines stood out as the best match.

A real bargain is the Borsao Garnacha Spain 2009 ($8), which is jammy yet refreshingly crisp with smoky black cherry and spice notes. (Garnacha, for Rhône wine lovers, is what the Spanish call Grenache.) Catena Malbec Mendoza 2008 ($22) offers more structure than the Borsao and has great texture and balance with boysenberry and toasty vanilla notes. Both wines are widely available and often discounted.

Also good with the burger was Cline Zinfandel California 2009 ($12) and Columbia Crest Merlot Washington Two Vines 2008 ($8). The Cline is juicy and ripe, with modest black cherry, caramel and spice flavors, and the Columbia Crest has soft yet zesty raspberry and spice notes. Both wines are the sort of easygoing reds you can pour generously at a large outdoor party.

Other wines worth considering include: Georges Duboeuf Fleurie Flower Label 2009 ($13), Planeta Sicilia La Segreta Red 2009 ($15), Saintsbury Pinot Noir Carneros Garnet 2009 ($20) and Perrin & Fils Côtes du Rhône-Villages 2009 ($15). (WineSpectator.com members can read full tasting notes and see scores.)

What wines do you enjoy with hamburgers or other Memorial Day-friendly food? Is there a wine region I’ve overlooked?

Pairings Holidays / Celebrations Memorial Day Red Wines

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