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A great grilled hamburger just begs for a sassy wine, a back-talking red with tangy fruit and snappy spice.

With an eye to the holiday, The Press Democrat organized its annual "Hamburger Reds" tasting to give you a lineup of feisty wines $20 and under to pair with your burger.

The top winner? Four-star-rated Frei Brothers, 2011 Reserve Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel at $20. The Gallo brand made the flavors come alive in a 7-ounce, juicy bacon cheeseburger from Santa Rosa's SuperBurger, a well-loved favorite hamburger spot. The zin was the perfect match because it had refreshing acidity, bright fruit and plenty of backbone.

The favorite wines rose to the top because they were rich and fruity or smoky enough to stand up to a hamburger's protein and fatty juices.

Other top-ranking wines include: Second-place winner Layer Cake, 2008Primitivo, Puglia, Italy at $17 (4 stars); and third-place winner Sebastiani, 2010 Sonoma Coast Zinfandel (4 stars) at $17.

A quick note about the star ratings. The scores reflect each wine on its own merit; how it fared with the hamburger isn't reflected in the score.

The flight included 10 wines, and the range was broad, from red blends to grenache to zinfandel.

Scott Johnsen, the viticulturist of Healdsburg's Frei Brothers, said it's the acid in the wine that makes it sassy.

"I think 2011 was a cooler year and so you have more red raspberry fruit peeking back at you," he said.

Johnsen wasn't surprised that his jammy zin was a great match with the savory hamburger.

"We try to get ripe, jammy fruit characteristics," Johnsen said. "We aim for jammy raspberry, jammy strawberry and jammy blackberry. ... We go for ripe jamminess, but we don't go over the top with alcohol and sugar."

To achieve jamminess without a soaring alcohol level requires keeping the sun in check.

"A lot of it is exposure, having the right connection to the land," he said. "The more exposure during the year gives you more mature wines at an earlier date."

Johnsen said the grapes hail from the eastern side of Dry Creek Road, drawing a southwestern sun exposure.

"Our zin is very approachable and it's not overly sweet," he said. "We keep it pretty dry."

Johnsen recently had this zin with a ribeye steak and said it was a great match with the savory meat.

"It went well with the high acidity of this zinfandel," Johnsen said. "Zins as a varietal tends to have higher acidity."

Johnsen boasts that he's a farmer first and his approach is to make wine with a light touch so it genuinely tastes like the grapes from which it was produced.

The runner-up in the tasting was the Layer Cake, 2008 Primitivo, Puglia, Italy, 13.5 percent, $17. It was also crisp, with red fruit and spicy aromas. The primitivo snagged 4 stars and also proved to be a tasty hamburger wine.

Third place went to the Sebastiani, 2010 Sonoma County Zinfandel, 14.5 percent, $17. This 4-star rated zin was terrific by itself, but didn't have quite as great appeal as the Frei Brothers or Layer Cake when paired with the hamburger.

The burger in question, with cheese and strips of bacon on top, has become an American classic of sorts. As comedian Jim Gaffigan put it, "Bacon is the best, even the frying of it sounds like applause ... and bacon bits are the fairy dust of the food community."

If you don't want to dress it up, the bare hamburger won't disappoint, as long as you have a brassy red to complement it. Do not despair ... it's not too late to find one.

Staff writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5310.

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