Poor Merlot. What was once one of the American wine industry's brightest stars has, some say, become the Keanu Reeves of wine: overexposed and under-skilled, a one-dimensional victim of its own success. Since being lambasted on the big screen this year in Sideways, Merlot's stock has hit an all-time low. Somebody get this grape a publicist.
In truth, Merlot has two faces. Because of its long run as America's default pour, the market is flooded with dull, bargain bin swill. Even though usually best fit for blending--and winemakers in St.-Emilion and Pomerol will back me up on this--Merlot can croon on its own , producing complex wines with layers of earth and spice folded into ripe, concentrated dark fruit. In America, Merlot is also the most widely planted grape in Washington state, which produces some of the country's best. And its big fruit flavors and firm tannins make it a versatile match for a variety of meat and game dishes.
As long as you don't go crazy with the peppermill, a grind or two on whatever you're eating can perk up your palate and make a wine taste more flavorful. (Try this at home: Eat a plain cracker or piece of bread with some wine, then crank a little pepper over the cracker and try again. Taste the difference?) For this recipe, I took Merlot's affinity for pepper a step further and created a delicious, simple sauce around pink peppercorns, which are less pungent than black pepper. (Actually, pink peppercorns aren't even peppercorns at all; they're the dried berries of the Baies rose.) The sauce balances this pungency with a sweetness that contrasts the salty, crispy duck skin. Because of its adipose nature, duck loves wine with some tannic bite, which cuts through the fat and cleanses the palate after each sip.
Recipe: Pan-Seared Duck Breast With Pink Peppercorn Sauce
2 boneless duck breasts, trimmed of excess fat
3/4 cup demi-glace (or reduced veal stock)
2 sprigs thyme
1 tablespoon Merlot
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon cracked pink peppercorns
1 tablespoon butter, cut into 4 cubes
Heat a large, heavy sauté pan over high heat. Prick the skin of the duck breasts all over with a fork. Using a sharp knife, gently score a crisscross pattern through the skin and about half way into the underlying fat, making sure not to cut all the way down to the meat. This will allow the fat to melt and drain away while the duck cooks.
Pat the duck breasts dry and season with salt. Lay the duck, skin side down, into the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low. As the fat melts away, carefully pour it off through a fine mesh sieve every few minutes. (Save this reserved fat; it will add a great ducky flavor to anything you cook in it.) The breasts should take from 20 to 30 minutes to cook to medium-rare, depending on their thickness and how much heat you give them. Keep your eyes on the fatty layer: When there's only about 1/8 inch of fat left between skin and meat, flip the breasts over and cook for another minute. Let the breasts rest while you prepare the sauce.
Bring the demi-glace to a simmer, add the thyme sprigs and reduce by half. Add the wine, vinegar, sugar and peppercorns and remove from heat. Remove the thyme sprigs. Stir in the butter and season to taste with salt. Cut the breasts diagonally into 1/3-inch-thick slices and serve immediately with the sauce.
|PEPPER BRIDGE Merlot Walla Walla Valley 2001||92||$45|
|Bright and zingy, with layer upon layer of jazzy blackberry, cherry, subtle oak tones and finely tuned tannins, finishing with a light tobacco note, ultimately long and elegant with well-mannered power. Drink now through 2010. 999 cases made. --H.S.|
|WOODWARD CANYON Merlot Columbia Valley 2001||91||$33|
|An elegant wine with a lovely core of floral currant flavors, shaded with hints of meat and smoke, with the fruit piercing a veil of firm tannins, delivering more than you expect on the long, driving finish. Best from 2006 through 2012. 2,131 cases made. --H.S.|
|COLUMBIA CREST Merlot Columbia Valley Grand Estates 2001||90||$11|
|Ripe, plump and generous with its fresh cherry, dried cherry, dark plum and sweet spice flavors, nicely framed with toasty oak as the fruit persists impressively on the long finish. Drink now through 2009. 310,000 cases made. --H.S.|
|CHATEAU STE. MICHELLE Merlot Columbia Valley 2001||89||$16|
|Smooth, generous style emphasizes distinctly minty, herbal overtones to the cherry and spice flavors. It all lingers nicely. Drink now through 2008. 178,000 cases made. --H.S.|
|COVEY RUN Merlot Washington 2001||88||$9|
|Crisp in texture, dense in flavor, with layers of ripe blackberry, currant and peppery spice flavors that have more up front than on the spicy, fresh cedar finish. Drink now through 2008. 45,000 cases made. --H.S.|
|HOGUE Merlot Columbia Valley Genesis 2001||88||$17|
|Firm, dense with earthy, peppery black cherry and red pepper flavors, lingering on the chewy finish. Needs time to settle in. Best from 2006 through 2010. 32,525 cases made. --H.S.|