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Feb 19, 2008
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Wine With Duck Breast

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas    

We had some fine duck breasts recently which, before being grilled, had sat in the refrigerator for about 24 hours bathing in a marinade heavily accented with citrus (notably ultra-thin strips of orange peel).  The marinade, which had penetrated deep inside the meat, was flavorful, but not so dominant as to obscure the rich, almost sweet tasting, tender flesh of the duck.  A trace of char from the grill added further interest and complexity to the dish.  Not surprisingly, red wines best suited the character of the duck, which was cooked medium-rare and served in slices fanned out across the plate.  White wines, we suspect, might fare better with well done meat than they did here (a couple of years ago when we tested roast duck for this column, we discovered that big, forthright whites including a JB Adam Gewurztraminer from Alsace and a Tablas Creek California Roussanne, were wonderful companions for the bird). With our duck breasts, we tried a couple of full-bodied Chardonnays, which were not terrible with the dish, but certainly did little to enhance it.  The best white wine of the evening was a beautifully made Viognier, but overall reds came out far ahead in the taste test--although not every red wine made the cut.  A couple of Meritages and a brawny Zinfandel, for example, all of which might have been terrific with steak or braised beef, were too big and muscular for this dish, underscoring the point that duck breast may be red-fleshed like beef, but is considerably leaner and sweeter tasting, so more adaptable to gentler wines.  At the other end of the spectrum, however, wines that were notably delicate, or had overt tannins, alcohol and/or acidity, did not really do justice to themselves or to the duck (disappointments in this category included a Rioja and a Chianti, both of them well made wines but too light for the dish).  In general, medium-bodied red wines with an edge of sweet fruit flavors backed up by a hint of earthiness seem best suited to grilled duck breast, whether or not it has been treated to a citrusy marinade. 



Approx. Price



Calera, Mt. Harlan (California) Viognier 2006





The only white wine we tried with the grilled duck breasts that really worked, this opulent Viognier held its own with the rich meat, while its sweet honeysuckle character picked up on and echoed some of the sweet citrus in the marinade.  All in all, it was a very good match.




Chateau St. Jean, Sonoma County (California) Cabernet Sauvigon 2005







This youthful Cabernet offers plenty of succulent fruit flavor without ever seeming heavy.  While some other reds we tried proved too muscular for this particular match, this more gentile wine struck just the right notes.




DeLoach, Russian River Valley (California) Pinot Noir 2006






A sumptuous Pinot that, while certainly ripe, avoids the excessive sweetness and heat that mars so many California renditions these days.  So many contemporary American Pinots taste heavy and ponderous.  This one manages to taste refined.  Its cherry-scented fruit married very nicely with the rich but still sweet duck meat.




Penfolds, Coonawarra (Australia) Shiraz 'Bin 128' 2005

(Imported by FWE Imports)






Unlike much Aussie Shiraz, 'Bin 128' impresses because it tastes harmonious rather than muscular.  That internal harmony helped it provide a pleasant background note to the duck.  Its flavors neither really complemented nor contrasted with the dish, and the wine was content to play second fiddle-but a very seductive fiddling that was. 





Domaine Santa Duc, Gigonas, (Rhône Valley, France) 2004

(Imported by Robert Kacher Selections)






Unlike some of the other matches we're recommending, in which sweet flavors in the wine complemented sweet flavors in the dish, this wine proved appealing because its flavors so clearly offered a contrast.  Its earthy, almost gamy character served as a foil for the citrus-infused duck breast, and the results were simply delicious.