Peking duck has been prepared since the late 14th 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.
But what wines pair best with this complex dish? A taste test was organised at Cuisine Cuisine in the IFC Mall to decide the matter. Up for the challenge was Tersina Shieh, winemaker and general manager at Independent Wine Centre, Nellie Ming Lee, a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers, and the author.
We watched as the waitress sliced the duck in front of us. It was served with pancakes, slivers of spring onion and cucumber, a plum-flavoured sauce and thinly sliced pickled ginger. The last is a more northern Chinese tradition.
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-flavoured pancakes.
The fat and ginger overwhelmed the Champagne's charms. 'Champagne of any kind won't work with Peking duck because of the wine's delicate structure,' Shieh noted.
Lee concurred:. 'A charming aperitif but not with oily duck.'
Sommelier She should be applauded for his willingness to experiment. He next provided a bold resling, a 2008 Weingut Liebfrauenstift-Kirchenstuck in the dry trocken style. This 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 the wine stood up to it nicely.
Lee described the riesling as 'vibrant, with babbling brook minerality'. She liked its earthiness and strength. Shieh described it as an 'interesting' choice, suggesting any combination of riesling with duck needed a weighty wine. At least this wine from Rheinhessen, Germany, 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. Lee said the wine had a 'perfect balance of fruit and acidity.' I agreed, as the salt in the skin balanced the sweetness of the plum sauce, and melded well with the duck flavours.
She 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 better with duck. Shieh described this pinot as 'a wine for wine lovers' and suggested this was the best wine to match with classic Peking duck.
We moved to another duck dish, minced, stir-fried with scallions and rice puffs and served in lettuce cups for the final two wines.
She poured a 2007 Crozes Hermitage Domaine de Thalabert from Maison Paul Joboulet Aine and said the spices and black pepper of the hermitage grape went best with this kind of dish.
Lee detected red flowers and raspberry blossom in the wine, but thought the duck was too salty from the soy sauce to balance the wine. Shieh described the Crozes Hermitage as an 'inoffensive, middle of the road choice'.
Lee noted the Crozes Hermitage cost HK$930 against HK$1,650 for the pinot on the restaurant wine list. I found the hermitage too muscular, its weight overwhelming the food. My mind wandered lovingly back to the pinot-Peking duck combination.
The final wine was Shieh's suggestion - a 1995 Colheita tawny port Quinta do Noval from Portugal - which was a revelation. Lee 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 Shieh. '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.
Two delightful combinations emerged from this tasting: the joy of a traditional merger with pinot noir, and the discovery of a new combination of tawny port with duck.