Peking duck has been prepared since the late fourteenth century. Ducks bred specially for the dish are glazed with maltose, a malt sugar, and roasted whole in a closed or hung oven, burning peach or pear wood. The malt colours the duck a gleaming golden brown and the fruit woods add subtle flavours, producing a dish prized for its thin, crispy skin.
What wines pair best with Peking duck? A trio of tasters pondered what has been acknowledged as a difficult question. The trio consisted of Tersina Shieh, winemaker and general manager at the Independent Wine Centre, Nellie Ming Lee CS, from the Court of Master Sommeliers, and your humble scribe from the SCMP.
The duck is usually sliced in front of the diners, and we watched in admiration as the waitress presented our meal, held at Cuisine Cuisine restaurant in the ifc mall, with precision and a touch of class. The duck was served with pancakes, slivers of spring onion and cucumber, a plum-flavoured sauce and thinly-sliced pickled ginger. The last is a northern Chinese tradition.
Some of the pancakes were infused with ginger. We made pancake packages, eating with our fingers and contemplating the wines to come.
Sommelier Andy She started with a grand cru rose champagne, a non-vintage Marguet pere et fils. Its delicate pink colour hinted at the flavours of strawberries and cherries in the mouth, and the creamy acidity on the palate pointed to the wine’s calibre. Alone this was a wonderful wine and a lovely aperitif. But it suffered when matched with fatty duck wrapped in ginger-infused pancakes.
The fat and ginger overwhelmed the champagne’s charms. Noted Tersina: “Champagne of any kind won’t work with Peking duck because of the wine’s delicate structure.” Nellie concurred. “A charming aperitif but not with oily duck,” she said as she removed the sliced ginger from her next pancake package.
Sommelier Andy should be applauded for his willingness to experiment. He next provided a bold riesling, a 2008 Weingut Liebfrauenstift Kirchenstuck in the dry trocken style. The wine is something of a mouthful to say, and its lemon zing of acid filled my mouth with contentment. This wine worked better with pieces of duck meat, rather than the pancake parcels of traditional Peking duck, the acidity cutting through the fat. The duck was succulent and I find myself salivating at the memory as I write.
Nellie described the riesling as “vibrant, with babbling brook minerality”. She liked its earthiness and strength. Tersina described it as an “interesting” choice, suggesting any combination of riesling with duck needed a weighty wine. At least this wine from Rheinhessen had more body than delicate riesling from the Mosel region.
A 2007 Nuits St Georges premier cru “Aux Perdrix” from Domaine des Perdrix was the next contender in this contest for culinary glory. Nellie said the wine had a “perfect balance of fruit and acidity.” I agreed: the salt in the duck skin balanced the sweetness of the plum sauce served with the duck, and melded well with the duck flavours.
Sommelier Andy said he chose an old world pinot ahead of a new world version from say, Central Otago in New Zealand, because he believed old world style combined best with duck. Tersina described this pinot as “a wine for wine lovers” and suggested this was the best wine to match with classic Peking duck.
I simply smiled with joy at encountering what I consider a classic combination. Duck and pinot, forgive the cliché, are a marriage made in heaven but consumed on earth.
We moved to another duck dish for the final two wines. Sommelier Andy poured a 2007 Crozes Hermitage Domaine de Thalabert from Maison Paul Joboulet Aine as small pieces of duck fried with scallions appeared on my plate. Andy said the spices and black pepper of the hermitage grape went best with this kind of dish.
Nellie detected red flowers and raspberry blossom in the wine but thought the duck was too salty from the soy sauce to balance the wine. Tersina tended to damn with faint praise, describing the Crozes Hermitage as an “inoffensive, middle of the road choice” that some diners would find “comfortable”.
Nellie noted the Crozes Hermitage cost $930 against $1,650 for the pinot on the restaurant wine list, and suggested some diners would tend towards the cheaper wine if at a large table. I found the hermitage too muscular, its weight overwhelming the food. My mind wandered lovingly back to the pinot-Peking duck combination as I reached for another glass of the delightful “Aux Perdrix” premier cru. Meanwhile, the ultra-cold champagne with which we started had warmed and was giving off delightful aromas of strawberries.
The final wine was Tersina’s suggestion: a 1995 Colheita tawny port Quinta do Noval from Portugal. It was a revelation. Nellie detected “walnuts and the warmth of a sunny day,” plus hints from her childhood of chau pei mui, translated as old skin plums.
Indeed, the port’s sweetness succeeded with both duck dishes, easily accommodating the salty skin of the Peking duck, the slices of pickled ginger that came with it, and the soy saltiness of the other dish.
“A winner,” declared Tersina. “The port is strong and stands up for itself, and I think the sommelier should push it more.” It was the only way, she said, to get more people in Hong Kong drinking port, a wine that should be more appreciated.
Overall, two delightful combinations emerged from this tasting with Peking duck: the joy of a traditional merger with pinot noir, and the discovery of a new combination of tawny port with duck.
* Published in Wine+ magazine, May 2012, pages 54-57, under the headline “Tasty pairings”. Find a link here.