Yes, you can do it! Summer is finally here. Most of us will feel summer's call to fire up the grill soon. And, chances are pretty good that before long you're going to feel a craving for America's favorite warm weather indulgence: the good old hamburger.
I've actually heard this line uttered before, and I'm sure you have as well: If you insist on having wine with a burger, there's no reason to crack open anything but whatever not-so-pricy red you have available. Of course, the "all-American" way is to have a beer with your burger instead…but let's counter by arguing, and firmly arguing, that there's no need to downgrade your wine selection just because you're serving burgers…and wine is less filling as well! So, let's take a closer look.
For our discussion, we are going to stick with consideration of the traditional principal substance of a classic burger: ground beef. So, if we are just considering beef and bun, we could compare our vino choices to what they would be for a traditional steak. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and even Chardonnay come to mind. But, there aren't too many people that stick with a plain burger, so let's go a step further.
We all know that hamburgers come in many shapes and forms, and this is precisely where you should consider pairing your wine - the "fixins" (toppings). As with other foods (e.g. fish), how you complement your hamburger could be what you remember most about your tasty burger. And, while Cabs and Merlots could still be options, there are many other avenues to explore.
Let's start off with what is likely the most common burger topping or condiment of them all: ketchup (this allows us to also consider tomatoes in the same discussion). Tomatoes are naturally tannic, acidic, and in the form of ketchup, we have sweetness added. Pairing a slightly acidic and/or slightly sweet wine with low tannins, while keeping in mind the backbone of the burger, the beef, could turn out to be a delectable venture. Sangiovese and Aussie-style bright Syrahs are solid choices in the red category. A white such as Albariño or even off-dry Rieslings or Gewürztraminers can be good calls; a semi-dry rosé would likely not disappoint.
Mustard is perpetually popular as well, and keep in mind that mustard comes in many differing forms- yellow, brown, spicy, deli-style…so consider this as well when you pick your wine. Chardonnay can be wonderful with mustard. If you're a barbeque sauce on your burger type, the tangy spice of the sauce could pair nicely with a Zinfandel or a fruity, full-bodied Syrah.
Another thought - how about a slightly chilled red wine? Some traditionalists out there may never consider such a thing, but some red varietals actually are surprisingly nice with a slight chill to them, which will bring out fruitiness in some reds. This is also a bonus for red-lovers, as in hot weather it will be refreshing. Varietals to try include Gamay Noir (as in J.Lohr's Valdiguié and French Beaujolais wines), Merlot and Malbec.
Of course, many don't even consider a burger to be a burger without a slice of melted cheese on it. The addition of cheese may or may not have grandiose impacts on a burger's ultimate showing, all depending on the choice of cheese. For example, a mild cheddar combined with other flavor elements may not really leave much of an impression more than adding some gooeyness to the meat. However, add something powerful like blue cheese, and due consideration is definitely required! Consider that dry-style Rieslings are a nice match to blue cheese in the white category, and red wine lovers may want to reach for a Cab or a Zin.
The addition of sautéed mushrooms will add earthiness to your burger. One can also find earthy characteristics in a multitude of red varietals, especially in some Pinot Noirs, so have fun and experiment. Adding onions? Whether you grill them first, on their own, makes a huge difference. Grilled onions will caramelize and will exhibit sweetness, while raw onion slices will increase acidity and add to the presence of spice.
Lettuce? It's not even worth a mention on its own, as lettuce's most common taste is that of water, and any wine will taste just fine next to water. Pickles? Actually, if you're having wine with your burger, pickles are one topping you may want to avoid altogether or at least significantly limit. Too much pickle on your burger can rob your palate of the mélange of flavors it may experience otherwise, wine or no wine involved.
So, there we have it. Of course, the most important thing is for you to enjoy whatever wine you personally prefer with your burger. However, the next time you fire up the grill and toss on some burgers, we recommend that you consider the whole sensory package of the hamburger experience before you pop open just any bottle of red wine you happen to have around!