Longer nights and cooler temps will lead naturally to richer, fuller-flavored foods. Duck, in particular, seems to celebrate autumn's sensuality with its crisped skin, sweet fat and plush flesh that can go with all sorts of treatments, from simple roasting to pastry-festooned terrines.
Asian flavors work particularly well with duck, especially such basic Chinese sauces as salty-sweet soy, jammy plum and pungent hoisin. Yet these Asian accents pose a challenge when it comes to what sort of wine you pour. Unlike European cuisines, there's not a centuries-old tradition of food-wine pairings here. You may just have to wing it.
"People don't know what they're going to drink beforehand, unlike Italian food where it's Chianti and pinot grigio," she said.
OK, so what works? Look to the special nature of duck for clues.
"Duck has a richness to stand up to bigger wines," said Christopher O'Gorman, communications director for Merryvale Vineyards in Napa. Cabernet sauvignon may not work, he added, but "merlot works great, especially with a merlot reduction sauce. … If a duck is prepared in a more subtle manner, or with a fruit compote type sauce, then pinot noir works nicely. "
Pinot noir is a match for the classic Peking duck, write Jaclyn Stuart and Jeanette Hurt in their new book, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wine & Food Pairing" (Alpha, $16.95). But an off-dry riesling works for them, too.
Another white, a gewurztraminer, is what Melton would pour with the VIP Duck at P.F. Chang's, a Cantonese-style half duck, glazed with a sweet soy plum sauce.
"When I'm looking at that dish, I'm thinking gewurztraminer," she said. "It goes great with the fattiness and richness of the duck. It even pulls out some of the sweetness."
Melton said gewurztraminer — the restaurant pours Covey Run from Washington's Columbia Valley — has great balance and a lower acidity that pairs well with spicy flavors.
"Sauvignon blanc would clean the palate too much," she added. "The Covey Run has a weight I like. It will stand up to fatty flavors and won't get washed away."
Complementing rich flavors
Add up three whites, three reds and one Asian-style duck dish to equal a very pleasant tasting. Two wines tied for first place: One was a gewurztraminer, a grape favored for this dish by P.F. Chang's staff. The other, which also emerged tops when tasted on its own, was a Napa cabernet sauvignon. Ratings reflect how well the wine worked with the food.
2008 Columbia Crest Two Vines Gewurztraminer: A steal at less than $10, this Washington white offers the classic sweet-tart minerally nose, crisp acidity, warm spices and peachy finishes you'd expect from a gewurztraminer (geh-VEHRTZ-trah-mee-ner). The pairing brightens both the wine and the dish, especially highlighting the Asian seasoning. 3 stars, $8
2007 Hess Cabernet Sauvignon Allomi Vineyard: Tied with the gewurztraminer, this California red has a somewhat jammy nose ripe with plums, spice and black pepper. The flavor is true Napa: smooth and rich with berry fruit that's constrained by supple tannins; easily drinkable now. The cab brings out the peppery quality of the duck; a very good match. 3 stars, $28
2008 J. Lohr Syrah: This Paso Robles red from California's Central Coast charmed on its own with long, velvety notes of chocolate, blackberry and spice. The wine and duck made a lively pairing; too lively for one taster, who thought the duck seemed "bloody" from the encounter. 3 stars, $15
2008 McWilliam's Pinot Noir Hanwood Estate: From South Eastern Australia, this red has a meaty, mushroom-tomato aroma. The flavor offers cranberry and mushrooms, lots of black pepper and a tannic finish. The duck brings out a salty quality in the wine, while the wine makes the duck seem even meatier. 2 stars, $11
2008 Quickfire Chardonnay Top Chef Selection: This Napa white, a tie-in to the popular "Top Chef" television series, smells like tropical fruits. The flavors are equally lush: peaches, mangos, pears and a spritz of lime. Tasters were split on the wine, some believing the buttery quality of the wine made the duck seem plusher while others thought the duck gave the chard an odd, metallic twist. 2 stars, $18
2008 Treana White: This wine from California's Central Coast is 55 percent marsanne, 45 percent viognier (vee-oh-NYAY). Look for lychee on the nose and plenty of tart, tropical fruit flavor. The wine's acidity holds up well against the duck's savory sauce. 2 stars, $25
You want that wine. But your store or area distributor may not carry it. State law may prohibit you from ordering a wine online. What to do? Ask your wine retailer for a wine similar in flavor, style and price. Remember, too, prices vary.