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May 9, 2021

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Perfect union of duck and wine

DUCKS and other waterfowl have always been a part of our diet. Archeologists found 6,000-year-old clay models of ducks from the Yangshao Culture, possibly indicating that ducks had already been domesticated. Most food historians agree that ducks were first domesticated about five or six thousand years ago in China or perhaps Southeast Asia — at least 1,500 years earlier than in the West.

Today, many food cultures embrace the duck but nowhere is the duck more celebrated than in Chinese cuisine. Most likely the world’s best-known duck preparation is Beijing duck. Beijing duck is one of the shinning glories of Chinese cuisine. Few dishes attract such universal acclaim and passion from both Chinese gourmets and Western connoisseurs.

The first written accounts date back to the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368) when it was mentioned as one of the imperial dishes. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the dish was prepared in a charcoal oven and stuffed with sheep innards and scallions. Over the ensuing centuries the dish was prepared in different styles until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) when the dish evolved into its modern form. Like many classic dishes this process has been refined over a very long period until it reached its present state of perfection. But duck in Chinese cuisine is by no means limited to this imperial dish.

Regions throughout China boast their own unique duck dishes. Nanjing is a perfect example. On the south bank of the Yangtze River, the city has raised and eaten ducks for over 2,000 years and signature preparation like Nanjing salted duck were popular during the Six Dynasties period (AD 222-589).

Nanjing boasts a plethora of duck treats including Jinling roasted duck, duck blood vermicelli soup, duck fat sesame pastries, duck chins, duck shaomai and dumplings and one of my favorites, duck hearts served on a skewer. Additional regional duck dishes and snack are duck and ginger soup from Fujian, Hangzhou-style duck pickled in soy sauce, Sichuan Zhangcha tea-smoked duck and Wuhan-style duck heads.

Whatever the preparation duck dishes offer lusciously rich, savory and aromatic meat, often with deliciously oily skin. These qualities beg for a wine, specifically a wine that embellishes the richness of the duck while cleansing the palate and facilitating digestion. For centuries the noble Syrah has built a reputation as a duck-friendly wine. The spiritual home of Syrah remains the Northern Rhone but there exists a New World region that’s building a reputation for making profound wines.

Fortuitously situated at 46-47 degrees north latitude, similar to the great French wine regions of Burgundy and the Northern Rhone, the Columbia Valley is one of North America’s largest premium wine producing regions. Vines were first planted in the mid-19th century, but commercial wine production only began in earnest about half a century ago. Over the ensuing decades, the wines of the Columbia Valley have won numerous awards and build a distinguished international reputation.

The expansive Columbia Valley extends over large parts of Washington State and northern Oregon. Winemakers in the Columbia Valley rave about the ideal climate and soils for making wines. The dry continental climate features abundant sunshine during the peak ripening months, on average annually 55 more hours of sunlight than Napa Valley; and cool evenings that lengthen the growing season and allow for optimal phenolic ripeness while still retaining high natural acidity.

Nutrient poor, free-draining soils also contribute to superior fruit. Persistent winds and cold winters make the Columbia Valley one of the very few Phylloxera-free regions and therefore vines can be planted on original rootstock. This contributes to greater varietal typicity. Growing rapidly, Washington State has over 1,000 wineries and 16 recognized wine regions that are referred to as AVAs or American Vinicultural Areas. One of the most notable AVAs has built a reputation for exceptional reds, including some of the New World’s best Syrah.

Walla Walla Valley

In southeast Washington State, Walla Walla gained AVA status in 1984 and has over 700 hectares of vineyards. The region also has the highest density of wineries in the state and is home to several of the most famous wineries. Red wine is king with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah widely planted but Chardonnay and Viognier are also becoming popular.

The hilly vineyards with rocky and sandy Loess soils help make Walla Walla Valley perfect for cultivating Syrah. One of the best producers is Tranche Estate. Owned by Michael and Lauri Corliss Tranche Estate occupies a spectacular site in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, east of Walla Walla. Their vineyards climb as high as 1,265 feet (385.57 meter). The Tranche Estate Syrah wine honors the traditions of the Northern Rhone by having small contribution of Viognier and offers resplendently rich black and red fruit flavors with hints of black pepper, soft tannins and a lingering finish. Tranche also makes a lovely GSM Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre blend. Should you be a white wine person, the rich and textured Tranche Viognier is also a great duck companion especially for Fujian duck and ginger soup.

Pioneering Washington producer Chateau Ste Michelle makes a predominantly Syrah blend called Indian Wells Columbia Valley Red Blend. This generous and smooth wine has contributions of Merlot, Malbec, Grenache, Mourvedre and other grapes. Some of the fruit including the Syrah is sourced from Walla Walla. Its flagship Columbia Valley Merlot has a small amount of Syrah that adds richness and color.

All these wines will enhance the wide repertoire of Chinese duck dishes.


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