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Jun 21, 2011
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Wine With . . . Duck Breasts with Fresh Nectarines

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas


Duck and duck breast (magret de canard in French) are traditionally served with some kind of fruit and/ or fruity sauce.  The classic renditions of the dish tend to be fairly sweet, which of course makes the wine selection challenging.  But when you make a sauce that balances fruit, acidity, and sweetness, it becomes a magical catalyst that incites the wine to dance across your palate.  

In making this sauce, add slightly less vinegar initially than the recipe calls for, since every balsamic tastes different--some sweeter, some more acidic--and the wine you’ve used may also be somewhat fruitier and/ or sweeter than another.  Likewise, stir in only a couple of teaspoons of honey at first; then taste, taste, and taste again, adding another spoonful or two until it all becomes nicely balanced.  Like winemaking, cooking is not an exact science.

This is a good all-season dish.  You can vary the fruit according to what is available in your market, substituting peaches, apples, or even fresh figs for the nectarines.   In cooler weather, the dish may be served with polenta, or something even creamier such as a potato and celery root purée.  In the summer, we like to serve it with something cool and understated, such as a simple, lightly dressed frisée salad, or diced zucchini sautéed with garlic and sprinkled with a little parmesan cheese.

Duck Breasts with Fresh Nectarines

Serves four.


4 nectarines

1 cup red wine (preferably a fairly fruity one)

1 and 1/ 2 cups chicken stock

1 or 2 sprigs thyme

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

3 teaspoons honey

2 duck breasts (about 2 pounds total)

salt and pepper

1 teaspoon each minced fresh thyme leaves, parsley, and chives

Cut the nectarines in half and discard the pits.  Place the wine, chicken stock, thyme, garlic, vinegar, and honey in a large saucepan.  Bring the mixture to the boil; then reduce the heat.  Lower the nectarine halves into the pan and simmer them no more than 4-5 minutes (they should still be somewhat firm).  With a slotted spoon, remove them to a plate, preserving the poaching liquid.  Slip the skins off the nectarines and set the fruit aside.  Raise the heat under the sauce and cook until the liquid is reduced by almost half. 

To prepare the duck, score the skin in a crosshatch pattern with the tip of a sharp knife, cutting deep through the fat without nicking the meat itself.  Season on both sides with salt and pepper (you may do this several hours before cooking the duck).  Heat a Dutch oven or skillet* over medium-high heat.  The pan will be hot enough to use when a few drops of water sprinkled into the pot sizzle and dry immediately.  Place the duck breasts in the pot, skin side down, and cook for 8-10 minutes, until the skins are crisp and brown.  Carefully turn them over and continue cooking for another 4-5 minutes or more, depending on the size of the breasts and the desired degree of doneness. (Rare to medium is usually ideal as duck breasts tend to toughen if they are cooked to well-done).  Remove the ducks to a cutting board and let them rest for about 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, transfer the nectarines and their accumulated juices back to the pot with the sauce in it to reheat them.  Slice the duck on the bias, arrange the nectarines around the pieces of duck, and pour a little of the hot sauce over the meat (pass the rest of the sauce at the table).  Sprinkle the herbs over the top and serve at once. 

٭We prefer to cook the duck breasts in a Dutch oven rather than a skillet, since a skillet is usually too shallow to hold all the fat that melts off the meat during cooking.  The deeper Dutch oven also does a better job of containing the inevitable spattering. 

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Duck breasts are full-flavored and quite meaty, so full-bodied red wines are obvious partners.  At the same time, though, the somewhat sweet nectarines in this dish can work well with a substantial white wine.  We found that a lush, ripe California Chardonnay made for a very tasty match, as did a fairly wide range of reds.  In fact, texture rather than flavor is the common element in all the wines we’re recommending.  This is a rich, substantial dish, and the wine you serve with it needs to be rich as well.  It’s also fairly sophisticated, so making it provides an occasion to open a special bottle.




Approx. Price


Arrowood, Sonoma Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2007






A beautifully balanced example of northern California Cabernet, this wine’s deep but forward dark berry flavors accent the duck breasts themselves, allowing the nectarines and the sauce to offer a gustatory lift




Caparzo, Rosso di Montalcino (Italy) 2008

(Imported by Vineyard Brands)






Unlike the Cabernet or Pinot that we are recommending, this Rosso does not so much complement the dish as provide a contrast or foil for it.  The wine is earthy and spicy, so adds wholly new flavors to the match




Morgan, Santa Lucia Highlands (California) Pinot Noir “Twelve Clones” 2008







A fairly substantial Pinot Noir, marked by sweet cherry fruit and an equally sweet note of spice in the finish, this wine echoes flavors found in the balsamic, wine, and honey reduction..




Rodney Strong, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County (California) Chardonnay Reserve 2008)





We were skeptical at first about this wine, wondering whether it would have enough heft to stand up to the deep, full flavors on our plates.  The answer is unequivocally yes.  It’s packed full of peach and, yes, nectarine fruit flavors, and offers a mouth-coating, almost buttery texture that especially echoes the sauce.




Tablas Creek, Paso Robles (California) “Esprit du Beaucastel” 2008






Like the Rosso di Montalcino, this wine provides a contrast to the rich, fruity dish, being marked by peppery, earthy notes as much as by flavors echoing plums and red berries.  It’s a blend of 38% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, 26% Syrah, and 6% Counoise.