December 4, 2020
By Bruce Neyers
An old Carignan vine at the Evangelho Vineyard, looking northwest towards Carquinez Strait
During my almost 30 years of regular travel to France for Kermit, I learned a lot about ‘Dining Abroad’. My education came to me informally, as I rarely looked to study the foods of France, but spending time visiting with small, family-owned domaines exposed me to the traditional food of many regions. I learned to love it.
We regularly enjoyed great meals in the rustic cellar at Château Thivin in Beaujolais. These were multi-course lunches built around hearty stews on cold winter days while sitting in front of a roaring fireplace drinking chilled Côte de Brouilly. Aubert deVillaine always served us a Daube of Beef for dinner in the spacious room next to his office at Domaine A&P deVillaine in Bouzeron. As much as I enjoyed the daube, I remember the cheese course there fondly, as Aubert would serve a selection of perfectly aged local cheeses, then entertain us with a scholarly background story of each.
There were many such meals, but the one that still rings loudest in my memory is one of the simplest: a breast of veal grilled amidst Maxime Magnon’s 100-year-old Carignan vines, in the hills just outside of Villeneuve les Corbières, in the northern Languedoc, between Carcassonne and Narbonne.
It was a beautiful spring day in late March in the south of France, and after an extensive tasting through Maxime’s cellar, our appetites were sharpened. We drove to the vineyard, where Maxime built a fire using old vine stumps he’d removed the previous winter. When they were reduced to red hot coals, he covered them with a large, portable grill, then placed on it several cutlets of veal breast, each cleaned of bone, then marinated overnight in a mix of olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and local herbs. He grilled each cutlet for about ten minutes, then sliced it lengthwise into strips. He poured some of his home-made olive oil onto a wedge of fresh baguette, placed a strip of veal across it, then lightly salted it. A jar of spicy, homemade peppers was available to those whose sense of adventure wasn’t already sufficiently challenged. I’ve never had a finer meal.
Maxime brought out several bottles of his Carignan for us to enjoy with our lunch, and never before had I found this variety both so refreshing and so satisfying. Our winemaker Tadeo Borchardt was traveling in France then and had joined us for the visit with Maxime. We were absolutely wowed.
About a week after we returned, Tadeo called. ‘I’ve found a grower who has some Carignan vines that he believes are about 120 years old. The crop is small, but the grapes are available, and he’d love to work with us,’ he reported. The grower was Frank Evangelho of Oakley, in the northeast corner of Contra Costa County. This was the beginning of a relationship that lasted until Frank’s death many years later.
After Frank died, we continued to buy grapes from the new owner. Moreover, we found some similarly old parcels of Carignan in different regions of northern California, and we continue to work with this fascinating grape variety. I’ve maintained an open-minded approach to all wines ever since that day, and thank Maxime often for expanding my world.
We still have some of our 2018 Carignan ‘Evangelho Vineyard’ for sale. It’s dark ruby colored, with an attractive glow that engages you to drink. The aroma is rustic and earthy, and it shows the softness of an aged red Bordeaux. That youthful attractiveness combines with a flavor both exotic and uplifting. It appeals to a wide range of foods. Grilled veal breast works for us, as does a traditional Blanquette de Veau. Carignan is equally satisfying with pasta or risotto. One of my traveling companions years ago asked me if I could imagine any food that didn’t go well with Carignan. I still haven’t found one.
Maxime grills with the 100-year-old vines in the background
The old vines used for fuel are in the upper-left corner
Marinade for grilled veal breast
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup coarsely chopped herbs: thyme, tarragon, basil, oregano, parsley
1 tbsp freshly grated lemon peel
2 cloves garlic chopped
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
Combine the ingredients and marinate the veal in the refrigerator for 3 hours or overnight.
You may need to special order the veal breast from your butcher, but it’s easy to do. Ask for a piece weighing 2–3 pounds, and ask that it come from a section of the breast of uniform thickness, as the breast will vary in thickness from top to bottom. Ask your butcher to remove any bones as well.