Who Loves the Lowly Eggplant? Carignan Does.
Both wine and fruit provoke reactions. But uncork a bottle with this baba ghanoush recipe for a perfect combination.
“Lowly” or “inexpensive plonk” are the sorts of thing wine people call carignan. “A high-volume grape that became associated with cheap red blends” is the sort of line one reads about carignan. The ever-diplomatic UK wine critic Jancis Robinson calls it “a curious red wine grape that provokes strong reactions in those who know about it.” Subtle, but clear, shade.
Poor carignan. All carignan wants to be is fruity and fun and drinkable and food-friendly. So why the poor reputation? Why the low-key disdain from inside the wine bubble?
One reason is that the south of France in the late 20th-century was a sea of mediocre carignan. Once upon a time, winegrowers in places like Languedoc decided to rip out existing vines and replant with carignan, in part because it was high-yielding and could help the region recover from phylloxera. Just two decades ago, in fact, carignan was France’s most planted grape. Then, at the turn of the 21st century, EU grants incentivized growers to reverse course, and rip out all the carignan. Now, there’s only half of the carignan in France that existed in the 1990s.
Last summer, I tasted a bunch of carignan in Rioja, where it is called mazuelo and is often blended with tempranillo. There is also a Spanish D.O., near Zaragoza, called Carineña (Spanish for carignan) which is where the grape originated. Oddly however, in Carineña, the grape is not called carineña, but mazuelo. (Fun fact: Grape names and synonyms often make little sense!)
Carignan has also been popping up in California, where in the past it had been used as a blending grape. Now, it’s up-and-coming among California’s newer wave of producers. For instance, I really like Lioco’s 100 percent Carignan from Mendocino called Sativa.
Still, most of the carignan I find comes from Languedoc-Roussillon, from Corbières or Côtes Catalanes or elsewhere. Most of what’s good comes, almost always, from really old vines. Two easy-to-find standards that I’ve liked over the years are Domaine Lafage Tessellae and Château d'Oupia “Les Heretiques” (the latter 80% Carignan and 20% Grenache). Both eschew oak, and both come from vines that are 40 to 100 years old. And you can find both for under $15. Les Heretiques I occasionally find for under $10. Price and value is another reason I like carignan.
Beyond affordability is carignan’s affability. Carignan has no main character energy. Carignan is your mellow, easy-going friend who’s down for anything or nothing at all, with no drama or need for the spotlight.
Everything about carignan is…medium: Medium body, medium tannins. There’s always red fruity notes of raspberry or cranberry. But what really makes good carignan is low-key spice notes (think anise or cardamom) and its backbone of unami. That’s what makes carignan a great partner with all sorts of difficult dishes. In the U.S., for instance, some people swear it’s the best compliment to the notoriously hard-to-pair Thanksgiving dinner. It’s also good with spicy foods full of cumin or five-spice: Honestly, often better than the cliched suggestion of an off-dry Riesling.
Since it’s summer, I’ve been thinking about carignan and eggplants (or aubergines as they nicely call them in the UK). When you think about it, eggplants face the same type of skepticism that carignan does. For hundreds of years, people have thrown shade at the eggplant. To be fair, historically, the eggplant was believed to be poisonous (it’s a nightshade). I know plenty of folks, in 2022, who still want nothing to do with eggplant. Most don’t even know whether it’s a fruit or a vegetable (it’s a fruit).
I happen to love eggplants. In my part of the world (New Jersey) it appears in the iconic Italian-American dish, eggplant parm. But since I’ve been talking about carignan, my thoughts drift to the Mediterranean.
Not too long ago, I went through a Mediterranean-inspired homemade dips phase. I paired Tejal Rao’s beet dip with rosé and David Lebovitz’s tapenade with pastis. So when I got a bunch of lovely eggplants at the farmers market the other day, I decided to make baba ghanoush. But I wanted do it the right way, channeling my inner Ottolenghi.
I fired up the grill, deeply charring those eggplants until they collapsed at the slightest touch. Then, I took the time to scoop and drain the flesh until they were creamy and concentrated in flavor. I used the best tahini I could find. I poured my second glass of carignan by the time I stirred in the garlic, lemon juice, and oil. Finally, oh my god, I had the richest baba ghanoush imaginable. I ate almost the whole bowl by myself, along with a third glass.
Is there such a thing as a perfect wine and food pairing? No. Life is mostly imperfect. But we try our best. The racy, fruity, earthy notes of the inexpensive carignan mingled close to perfectly with the smoky, garlicky, creamy tastes of my humble homemade baba ghanoush.
Both carignan and eggplant may provoke strong reactions. But in this case, the reaction is: Pretty damn delicious.
The trick to this recipe is how you handle the eggplants. Grilling them over fire until charred and soft is best. It’s also important to let them rest after cooking and then drain as much moisture as possible.
3 to 4 Italian eggplants
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 to 3 cloves garlic, grated
¼ cup sesame tahini
½ cup olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Pinch of Aleppo pepper, smoked paprika, cayenne, or other dried pepper.
Chopped fresh parsley
If using a grill. Prick the eggplants all over with a fork, then place directly over heat source. Grill eggplants for at least 30-40 minutes, turning occasionally. You want the eggplants super charred and soft, collapsing and offering no resistance to a knife or fork. When done, wrap in foil and let rest for 10-15 minutes.
If using the oven, there are two methods for cooking eggplants. 1) Preheat broiler to high. Prick the eggplants all over with a fork, then place on a foil-lined baking sheet and broil, turning occasionally, for at least 30 minutes, until eggplants are super charred and soft. When done, wrap the eggplants in the foil and let rest for 10-15 minutes. Or 2) Preheat to 218*C and light a burner atop the stove. Prick the aubergine all over with a fork, then place each aubergine directly on the burner, turning occasionally, until it is fully charred, about 5-10 minutes. Then place each on a foil-lined baking sheet and roast, turning occasionally, for about 30 minutes, until eggplants are super charred and soft. When done, wrap the eggplants in the foil and let rest for 10-15 minutes.
After you’ve grilled, broiled, or roasted the eggplant, let them rest in foil until they’re cool enough to handle. Slice open and scoop out the flesh, making sure to remove any of the burnt pieces of skin. Drain the excess moisture of the eggplant flesh. Transfer flesh to a salad spinner or fine-mesh strainer. If using salad spinner, simply give the flesh a whirl to drain the moisture. If using a fine-mesh strainer, let sit for at least a half hour to drain.
In a large bowl, add the eggplant flesh, lemon juice, and garlic. Mash and stir into a rough paste. Add the tahini and whisk vigorously, then add the olive oil in a steady stream, emulsifying as you whisk. Add more lemon juice if it gets too thick. Stir in salt and pepper.
Serve in bowl, topped with chopped parsley, drizzled oil, and pinch of the pepper.