The burger. Juicy, charred and draped with a slice of cheese — even American will do — it’s a quintessential staple of casual summer gatherings. Whether it’s for a group of friends or just my family (burgers are the rare food we can all agree on), I love to cook them at home. Sometimes I smash them on the griddle for that exaggerated crispy crust, but most often I sear them on a hot grill — charcoal is best, but gas is OK, too — to a perfect medium to medium rare.
If I have time, I’ve taken to grinding my own meat, too. The flavor and texture are worth the extra effort.
The world is obsessed with burgers right now. If you don’t want to cook one at home, there are more burger-focused restaurants than ever before and even the most mediocre pubs and diners offer a decent one nowadays.
Often, I’ll reach for a beer when I’m eating burgers. I like a well-balanced India Pale Ale — one that has a good malty backbone to match the richness of the meat but also a juicy, hoppy profile and enough bitterness to cut through a burger’s fat. Two local favorites are Greenport Harbor Brewing Co.’s Otherside IPA and Moustache Brewing Co.’s Sailor Mouth IPA.
But this is the Long Island Wine Press, so let’s talk about wine — which can also be a great foil and partner for your favorite burger preparation.
Before I dive into what to look for in a burger wine, here’s a little public service announcement: Wine pairing isn’t that complicated and you shouldn’t worry too much about it. If there’s a wine you love that doesn’t match what I suggest below, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It just means you may like something different. Drink it.
Enjoy it. Heck, share your favorites. Maybe I’ll learn a little something myself.
OK. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the three things a wine must be when I head into my cellar to find something to enjoy with burgers.
Flavorful. With the meat, bun, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, bacon and various condiments, there is a lot going on in a burger. Delicate nuance is going to get lost in the fray. I tend to like younger wines that are more focused on fruity aromas and flavors, but a savory, minerally edge complements a burger nicely. A bit of oak flavor actually works well, too, almost mimicking the charred flavor of a well-cooked burger.
Fresh. Higher-acidity wines are better with food as a rule, and that holds true here, too. They whet your appetite, keep your palate fresh and balance the richness of the burger and cheese.
Affordable. There’s nothing actually wrong with serving expensive wine with a burger. Invite me over and I’m happy to drink your prized bottles. But again, ethereal complexity is going to get lost in the chaos of a burger’s myriad flavors. Save the pricy bottles for another time and focus on affordable deliciousness.
Putting these theories into practice, I gathered more than a dozen local reds made with a variety of grapes to taste at home with a group of friends — some in the wine industry, some not — and home-ground burgers.
For the purposes of my tasting, I considered “affordable” as anything under $30, though I did focus more on the $20 price point.
Rather than relying solely on my own note tasting notes and opinions, I kept track of the most honest assessment possible in these situations: what bottles were emptied first.
These four wines were emptied first and apparently my friends have palates more similar to mine than I thought. We liked the same wines this time around.
Pellegrini Vineyards East End Select 2014 BBQ Red ($19). Made from 100 percent petit verdot, this super-fruity — so fruity that it almost tastes sweet — red has a bit of peppery spice and plenty of acidity to balance a variety of rich foods. Though not my favorite by itself, it excelled with the burgers. There aren’t enough red wines made locally that can take a light chill, but this is one of them. Perfect for a hot summer day when you still want red wine.
Roanoke Vineyards 2013 Marco Tulio ($24). This cabernet franc-heavy blend shows ripe fruit up front — think blackberries and cherries — with notes of earth, toasty oak and tobacco. Roanoke is one of Long Island’s great cabernet franc growers and producers, and this wine exemplifies their style at an affordable price.
Southold Farm + Cellar 2015 “Chasing Moonlight” Sparkling Lagrein ($28). The Meadors have earned a following for their grill-friendly sparkling red program, and this wine continues that tradition — though in a slightly different direction. It’s less fizzy than previous iterations and is made with estate-grown lagrein. It’s less fruity but still fruity, with dark fruit flavors, a dense minerally character and more tannin than you might expect. It’s hard to picture a better burger wine.
Paumanok Vineyards 2014 Cabernet Franc ($28). Intense aromas of blackberry and currant are accented, and not at all dominated by, herbal notes. They bring a savory food-friendliness to fruit flavors that have a fresh, just-picked quality. Medium-bodied and intensely berried — which again more than balances that savory herbal character — the palate speaks for itself. You won’t find toasty or oaky flavors. Not even a lick of vanilla. The finish is long, with a plum skin note, fresh acid and a nice bit of drying tannin.