By Rick Riozza

First off, I’d like to thank you readers who’ve emailed me, appreciating all of the effort I make to get out and grab the wine scoop of the week, especially on these hot days. Indeed, you have further inspired me to take on the weather anew—this time, I’m out grilling burgers in the 112 degree heat!

Further, I’ve called upon our local wine distributors to offer a bottle of wine that they believe is the quintessential match for America’s favorite summertime dish—the grilled hamburger. Yet again, saving you readers from the drudgery of having to taste through Angus, Kobe and Wagyu burgers along with a dozen or so premium wines from around the world.

Last year at the 36th Annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, there was an especial seminar on this very subject. As I recall, there were around six wines and three different types of burgs: artisanal chicken, spicy lamb, and the good ole standby—a beef cheeseburger. Apparently this wine/foodie event honed in on the selected wines that can make everyone happy. But—it seemed to me that there was a stealthy theme of Californian vs. European wine going on (is vino xenophobia really a thing?—nah!!??).


Anyway—first was the chicken burger prepared with Green Hill chesse (a brie type) and caramelized onions and apples. Back in the day, I would have called this one a “yuppie burger”. A specialty burg for sure that would pretty much clamor for a special out-of-the-ordinary wine—which was provided: a German Rheingau Riesling, with its rose petal, crisp apple and slate notes. I love this wine; I’ve stated previously, that if I had to enjoy only one white wine forever, it would be a Rheingau Kabinett Riesling. Fortunately no one holds you to these types of comments—but I still love the wine!

The red wine offered was a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. The audience voted for the German wine: the light sweetness of the Riesling complemented the onions and apples beautifully. The light-bodied Pinot was good with the chicken burger, too, but not quite as good (although with a “turkey burger”, I think the Pinot Noir might have won—and a shout-out to Roc’s Firehouse in Palm Desert, my pick for the best Turkey burg for those who said they’d never try one).

The second burger was the lamb with a spicy harissa slaw. For this one, the wines provided were a Barbera d’Alba—bright cherry/currant with food friendly high-acidity, and, the Cameron Hughes Lot 487, a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, and Petite Sirah from Lodi—dark, rich & fruity.

It’s always splendid to have a tasty spicy burger—this one though, obviously, had a prominent “Middle Eastern” flavor profile. Most of the spicy burgers around town here have more of a “Mexican” heat going on—especially with pickled jalapeños & its trendy charred brother—the chipotle. The more hot & spicy the burger is, the less amount of alcohol is desired. A habanero burger with a strong & heavy Zin or Petite Sirah will take you down.

So this part of the contest pretty much dealt with, “what goes better with spicy (meaty) food: rich fruity wines, or bright high-acid wines.” The crowd voted the Zinfandel blend. My vote was . . . hey!—not to go off the rails, but, you tasty-grub wine-pairing fans may remember my previous article “Hey!—Who ordered the pizza? With Wine, Beer, or a Coke?” Boldly, I recommended the Italian & Californian red Barbera Wine as the best match. As you can see, incredibly, a bottle or two of Barbera is also the ticket here as well. So if you’re having a pizza & burger patio party—Barbera for everyone!

The final classic cheeseburger met up with the competing Alakai Grenache from Joel Gott Wines and the Apollo Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Both were superb; the Gott more fruity (California!) and supple, the Montepulciano more spicy and rustic (Italian!). And both were great with the burger. For as honest as we foodies claim to be, it was tough to not vote for the Grenache, as the winemaker, Joel Gott, was sitting onstage—and he’s a really nice guy! (The Italian contingent were—well what do you think!?—happy & festive: Mangiamo! Beviamo!—who cares the outcome!)

Back home here, while I’m grilling the burgs, I’m having an ice-cold beer no matter what! And I’m not a soda-pop fan but a Coke on ice with a juicy cheese burger can be the bomb when you’re hot, hungry and parched.

Bold, fruity reds are the classic, go-to wines for beef burgers. Wines like a California Zin add a spicy element, while Syrah from the Rhône Valley or the Australian Shiraz brings a peppery quality to the match. The lush Argentine Malbec or Spanish Granacha is always a sexy choice. And if your beef contains a high-fat content, don’t be afraid to grab a tannic red. Tannins (those puckering sensations) give the red a firm texture/ “backbone”, and, match the beef and its fat with added flavor complexities.

Let’s see—already mentioned Barbera, especially with a really charred burger and your basic toppings. A non-spicy lamb burger goes wonderfully with Cabernet Sauvignon, or, a Cab Franc if you’ve positioned green bell peppers in the combo.

If you like strong mustards & cheeses, fresh tomatoes, pickles & onions, light fruity wines are what you’re after, such as a Cru Beaujolais or a light Oregon Pinot Noir.

Should you wish to not only gourmandize but also to impress your lover or guests, A bacon burger with blue cheese—maybe an added grilled vegetable—absolutely lusts for Lambrusco, the light fizzy red from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region that comes in dry and off-dry styles. Gotta get to a wine store though, that sweet Riunite found everywhere—ain’t making it.

Buon cibo! Good eats!