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Jul 7, 2009
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Wine With . . . Burgers with Pickled Cucumbers & Ketchup- Aïoli

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas


Red wine with burgers is an iconic pairing so perfect that, for epicureans, it can reach almost cosmic proportions.  Among the many reasons why the two go together so deliciously is texture — there’s a subtle but critical balance between finely chopped meat and the tannins in red wine that can trigger a state of bliss among gastronomes.   The fat content of burgers likewise bonds with the tannins in red wine (one reason why the ground meat shouldn’t be too lean).  Then when you factor in the taste sensations of the dark, lightly charred crust and juicy pink or reddish center of a perfectly cooked burger — well, you’ve reached sensory nirvana. 

There’s no doubt that the choice of condiments will affect the overall burger and wine pairing experience.  (The inherent sweetness in a heavy dose of ketchup, for example, needs to be balanced with wines characterized by overt fruitiness.)  But all in all, most of us find that a wide range of moderately full-bodied, full-flavored inexpensive reds make excellent partners for burgers -- as long as the wine in question is reasonably well made and balanced.  

For some people, however, vin ordinaire isn’t always enough.  Malcolm Forbes, for one, was reputed to have been partial to Big Macs accompanied by Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.   And then there was the scene in the movie Sideways when the starring wine geek, Milo, (played  by Paul Giamatti) sits in a diner and washes down a burger and side of onion rings with a Styrofoam cup of 1961 Cheval Blanc.   Now granted, Miles was in somewhat of a suicidal funk, but aside from the Styrofoam cup, the basic principle of his meal plan doesn’t seem completely demented.  Burgers can be great partners for really fine wines.  

Now we’re not necessarily suggesting that you throw some burgers on the grill and dust off one of those $200 bottles of Bordeaux you invested in a few years ago; but if you like a little adventure in your wine tasting experiences, you might want to spring for a costlier wine than usual the next time you fire up some hamburgers.  We did just this recently, and invited our friends Rick and Rebecca to join in the experiment. 

Our goal was to keep with the spirit of traditional garnishes — lightly toasted potato buns (available at most supermarkets), sliced tomato, and slivers of raw onion — with a couple of subtle flourishes thrown in.  Instead of an overdose of ketchup and mayo we kicked the meal up a notch by making a classic French aïoli spiked with ketchup.  (In addition to being delicious, this Franco-American sauce seems an especially appropriate condiment this time of year, when we’re between the 4th of July and Bastille Day on July 14th).  Instead of opening a jar of pickles we made some quick and easy pickled cucumbers.  Thinly sliced and mouth-wateringly tangy, they served as a minimalist but significant gustatory focal point that underscored and united all the other ingredients.

Pickled Cucumbers

1 cucumber

4 tablespoons sugar

1 cup rice wine vinegar

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

1 bay leaf

Peel and thinly slice the cucumber into rounds approximately 1/8“ thick.  In a small saucepan combine the sugar, vinegar and spices. Bring to a boil and add the cucumber slices.  Remove from heat, cover the pan, and let rest until the liquid has cooled.  Transfer the contents to a bowl or jar and refrigerate for at least an hour and up to 12 hours.  Before serving, pour the cucumbers into a colander and rinse briefly under cold, running water.  Pat dry and arrange them on a plate, scraping off and discarding peppercorns and coriander.

Ketchup Aïoli

1-2 cloves garlic, chopped

½ teaspoon salt or to taste

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 cup olive oil

¼ cup ketchup

Place the garlic, salt and lemon juice in a blender and process for a few seconds.  With the motor running, slowly add the oil in a steady drizzle until the mixture emulsifies.  Add ketchup, and process until thoroughly mixed.  Refrigerate until ready to serve.



Approx. Price


Harney Lane, Lodi (California) Old Vine Zinfandel “Lizzy Lane Vineyard” 2006




The wines that performed best with our burgers all shared forward fruit flavors, subtle rather than overt oak and spice notes, and a fairly full-body.  Some lighter wines (an Oregon Pinot Noir, for instance) did not show as well.  So too with a few wines in which earthy flavors proved more dominant (a Gigondas and a Chianti Classico).  As so often happens with these tastings, we liked a number of different varietals, proving that no one grape goes best with any particular dish.


This old vine Zin offers everything that can make that varietal so appealing – sweet berry fruit, briary undertones, and a long finish.  While a couple of us thought that it might be a bit too sweet, none of us could resist its seductive charm.




Kilikanoon, Clare Valley (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon “Blocks Road” 2006

(Imported by Old Bridge Cellars)





A delectable Cabernet, with firm but not astringent tannins, this wine seemed a bit reserved when tried on its own before the tasting.  The burgers (and the aioli) seemed to bring out its more vivacious side. 




Luca, Uco Valley Mendoza (Argentina) Syrah “Laborde Double Select” 2006

(Imported by Vine Connections)






Rich, ripe, and seductively lush, this was a favorite of all four of the tasters.  People especially appreciated the marriage of full flavor and supple texture that it presented.



Sbragia Family Vineyards, Dry Creek Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon “Andolsen Vineyard” 2006




More overtly fruity and forward than the Kilkanoon Cabernet, this Golden State rendition offered everything we found we wanted with a wine for these burgers – rich, unabashed flavor coupled with a fleshy, juicy sensation on the palate.  Yum!.  





Two Angels, High Valley (California) Petite Sirah 2006







Much more approachable than many examples of Petite Sirah, this wine excited all four of us at the table because it seemed both powerful and accessible.  Showing more black than red fruit flavor, it proved to be surprisingly soft and supple when sipped with our burgers.