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Ask a Somm: Which Wines Should I Drink With Burgers?

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Welcome to Ask a Somm, a column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine. Wondering about a bottle? Drop us a line.

Shutterstock/Dasha Petrenko

When New York Italian stalwart il Buco debuted in 1994, wine expert Roberto Paris joined the team to build the restaurant's impressive Italian cellar. Though he took a brief hiatus, once restaurateur Donna Lennard expanded the il Buco brand with il Buco Alimentari e Vineria in 2011, Paris returned as Wine Director to oversee bottles at both locations. Below, Paris talks through pairing wine with burgers, in a myriad of condiment forms.

Q: Any guidelines for pairing wine and burgers? Naturally it seems like red wine would make sense, but any specific varietals that work best? Or what about suggestions on non-red wines that would work?

Paris: First of all, hamburger wines shouldn’t cost a lot. The best wines would mostly be red ones that enhance the grilled beef and bun. The style of wine depends a lot on how one garnishes the burger.

... the best overall burger wines must have enough structure and tannins to handle the savory beef, but they must also be bold and loaded with lush, fresh fruit to balance all those other wonderful flavors.

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 that are layered on, the more you need a flexible red. For example full-flavored Cru Beaujolais or savory Pinot Noir work well when the burger is topped with condiments like mayo and cheese. For me, the best overall burger wines must have enough structure and tannins to handle the savory beef, but they must also be bold and loaded with lush, fresh fruit to balance all those other wonderful flavors. Amongst Italian wines, one of my favorite is Barbera d'Alba from the Piedmont region, with rich cherry and black currant flavors, high acidity, and low tannin content that would work well with the charred flavors and basic toppings of a burger. Another wine that works well is from the Loire Valley in France, Cabernet Francs from Chinon. Generally speaking, wines from an austere terroir rich in minerals, gamey complexity, and a strong tannic backbone, but also a velvety depth of spice flavors, work well.

Offbeat pairings that would work well include 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, which are also very fun and often affordable.

The sweeter the toppings, the more a wine with acidity is needed. Ketchup, relish and caramelized onions add sweetness and require high acid reds like Barbera. Smoky and salty toppings like bacon and blue cheese can be paired with a dry Lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna. Toppings that aren’t too sweet, like Dijon-style mustard, sliced onions, fresh tomato, and lettuce, are good with fruity wines like Cru Beaujolais Morgon or Dolcetto d’Alba, or a classic lighter style Pinot Noir from Oregon or Burgundy.

... my really favorite dream pairing with a burger is fancy pink bubbles: a well structured rosé Champagne with lots of layers.With a spicier burger, such as with a hot sauce, salsa or fresh jalapeño, it's best to try to find a red low in alcohol. A little sweetness in the wine doesn’t hurt either. Beaujolais, Cerasuolo di Vittoria from Sicily is a great option for a hot summer day, and could even be served slightly chilled.

Whites can still be a possible match. They would need to be high acid, well-structured and not too buttery. From Italy there are some real gems like the underrated Verdicchio di Jesi from the Marche region or Trebbiano di Abruzzo from Abruzzo. An off the beaten path pairing would be a full-bodied, dry, structured, complex rosé (not the quaffing ones) like Bandol from Provence.

With all that said, my really favorite dream pairing with a burger is fancy pink bubbles: a well structured rosé Champagne with lots of layers. These wines are full-bodied enough to stand up to the protein and to most toppings, while the bubbles add a cleansing effect. And, it doesn't hurt that these wines also add an element of sensual luxury to a quintessential everyday comfort meal.

Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria

53 Great Jones Street, New York, NY 10012 212 837 2622

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