Thursday, February 21, 2008

Pairing Peking Duck

Mention the word “duck” in the company of wine lovers and you’ll find them more likely to reach for a corkscrew than to reflexively shrink, drop or roll. Arm wrestling matches are likely to ensue over the pairing of choice. Will it be red Burgundy or Bordeaux, or something from the deeper southwest of France perhaps? All are likely preferences. But let’s not forget how important preparation techniques and seasoning can be in determining that ever-fleeting ideal pairing.

Take Peking duck for instance. There’s a very high skin to meat ratio in the classic serving style. Long, slow roasting breaks down the proteins in the meat, making it more about richness and texture. I just love the counterpoint between the golden, crackly skin and the buttery, tender texture of the meat below, enriched with some of the fat rendered from beneath the bird’s skin during that luxurious roast. Add to that, when the dish is done right, the subtle, pervasive infusion of Asian five spice and you’ll begin to get an idea as to why I love Peking duck. I’m salivating just writing this.

When it comes to Peking duck, my mind turns away from red wine entirely, focusing instead on a white with nerves of steel and a heart of fruit. Riesling. My heart and habits take me to Germany but Austrian or Alsatian examples can work as well. I look for a solid core of fruit, scintillating acidity and a spine of minerality to temper the wine’s fruit. This is not the place for austere stoniness or for opulent fruitiness (both of which have their place, of course). Subtle spiciness is welcome; big, broad grapefruit driven flavors are not. Trocken (dry) or halbtrocken (half-dry) wines seem to work best, ranging anywhere from the simple to the deep. What’s important is balance and purity of flavor.

The pairing was put to the test recently, as I shared an over-the-top meal with a group of friends at a tiny little nook in Chinatown in celebration of the Year of the Rat. After about ten courses, all served family style and washed down with a few other wines, we decided to order a Peking duck for good measure. As luck would have it, I had toted along a bottle of Riesling we’d yet to open, the 2004 Monzinger trocken from Emrich-Schönleber, a Nahe-based producer I visited in 2004. It is Schönleber’s simplest Riesling, at least in terms of what’s bottled for sale beyond the winery’s front door. Ask Werner Schönleber about it and he’ll just shrug, as if to say it’s no big deal. Ask his son Frank and he’ll just talk about how easy it is to drink a bottle (it typically chimes in at around 11.5% alcohol). In spite of the wine’s simplicity relative to its stable mates, it’s still capable of mid-term cellaring in solid vintages. With a couple years in bottle, its early yeastiness and fresh citrus tang become integrated into a more complete wine. On this night, it was brimming with white peach, laced with red spice and underpinned by mouthwatering slate minerality. As with all of Schönleber’s wines, it was all riding on a wave of beautifully balanced acidity.

With the duck, let’s just say it was divine. A lovely match with the crackling skin, spice and fat infused meat and even with the mildly sweet hoisin brushed pancakes. Without solicitation, at least three of my fellow diners commented on the pairing, asking if I’d brought it with the duck in mind. I hadn’t. It was just serendipity. Does it work for you?


J.Lo said...

It's always been my practice to trust your judgment on this stuff, Dave, but I think the wife and I may need to grab a duck and head down to Dusseldorf this weekend to confirm your assessment. Please don't take it personally.

Edward said...


I think I could even drink just water and be happy with the duck :)

David McDuff said...

It's not the wish to test the pairing that I take personally, J.Lo ;-)
Somehow, grabbing a duck and heading down to Wilmington just doesn't compare.

That's sacrilege, Edward. Then again, the duck was damn tasty.

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