Eggplants and Old Rho^nes

TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

For four generations, the Perrin family has worked the rock-strewn vineyards of Cha^teau de Beaucastel in Courthezon, a tiny commune just northeast of France's Cha^teauneuf-du-Pape. Since 1989, brothers Francois and Jean-Pierre Perrin have also been partners with their longtime American importer, Robert Haas of Vineyard Brands, in an ambitious project to produce Rho^ne-style wines in California.

Given the climatic similarities between the southern Rho^ne and California, it seemed a natural idea. The Perrins searched all over California and settled on a spot near Paso Robles with the same chalky soil as Cha^teauneuf-du-Pape's.

"Of course we have no rocks, and no Rho^ne River," says Perrin. "But the soil is the same and has the same high pH [alkalinity]."

The Perrin brothers are not the first of the so-called Rho^ne Rangers, but they're certainly the first to have such deep experience with Rho^ne varietals in France. And rather than bank on the uncertain pedigree of the Rho^ne grapes available here, they have been able to bring in genetic stock from their own vineyards and are propagating it--slowly--in their own high-tech greenhouses. (They had only two vine cuttings of each type to begin with.)

The estate is named Tablas Creek Vineyard, after the creek that runs through the 150-acre property in the rolling hills west of Paso Robles. A scant 20 acres (of a proposed 100) have been planted to the red grapes Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Counoise and the white Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc.

"We don't want to produce a Cha^teauneuf-du-Pape but good California wines from the true Rho^ne varietals," says Francois Perrin. "Our idea is to produce an assemblage [blend]: one red, one white."

Though they produced wines in 1995 and 1996 under the Adelaida Hills and Tablas Hills labels, 1997 was the first year they actually harvested a small crop (about 200 cases of red) from the French vines. "It's a beginning," Perrin says. "Right now the vines are too young. Certainly, with these varietals, you produce the best wine with older vines."

Meanwhile, it's a good time for wine lovers to get familiar with Cha^teau de Beaucastel and its wines. Last time I was in France, I visited Cha^teau de Beaucastel to see the wine in its context--physical and culinary.

Francois Perrin's wife, Annick, grew up in this part of Provence, and her cooking is very much rooted in the region. She learned to cook from her grandmother. "She was the old-fashioned type of Frenchwoman who was always before her stove, cooking all day long," Annick Perrin recalls.

"My grandfather had some vineyards and he grew melons, tomatoes and eggplants too, so we usually cooked dishes with whatever we had in the garden at the moment. They were very simple things, but full of flavor and gusto."

For a casual warm-weather lunch at the Perrin's 17th century farmhouse (once a hunting lodge for Louis XIV), Annick Perrin prepared several of her favorite dishes.

To make the first, aubergine au tomates, she layered sauteed eggplant slices with cooked-down fresh tomatoes, garlic and parsley, then refrigerated it overnight for the flavors to mingle. It's a dish she often makes in summer because it's light and cool.

She paired it with the 1996 Cha^teau de Beaucastel Roussanne "Vieilles Vignes" (old vines). "It's nothing like the new wave of fresh, fruity white wines," says Francois Perrin. "It's made in the old style--very round, very rich and fat and long in the mouth with a scent of acacia blossoms, which is why you can drink it with aubergine au tomates. Like most Provencal dishes, it has bold flavors--here garlic, parsley and tomatoes. But this wine is an easy match, because its soft roundness balances the acidity of both the eggplant and tomatoes. A wine with high acidity would never work with this dish."

Cha^teauneuf-du-Pape blancs age well. If you have any in your cellar, Francois Perrin would also suggest drinking the Roussanne vieilles vignes from a vintage earlier than 1991.

"You need either to drink them very young or else older," he says, "because the wine completely changes. It loses its honeyed and flowery character and obtains more a minerally, earthy character."

The main course is a classic omelet aux truffes, perfumed with an entire black truffle. Not all of France's truffles come from Perigord: This part of Provence has its own each fall.

"We still have some left, because every year we freeze some, still covered in dirt. Freezing alters the texture a bit, but none of the flavor is lost," explains Francois, Perrin, sniffing a lumpy egg-sized specimen with all its earthy aroma intact.

With the omelet, Annick Perrin serves a simple salad of lettuce tossed with Provencal olive oil and a few drops of wine vinegar and showered with fresh tarragon, basil and chives. The wine is the 1996 Cha^teau de Beaucastel Rouge, which Francois Perrin has chilled briefly because of the hot weather.

Surprisingly, vintners in Cha^teauneuf generally drink an older wine with the dessert course. "They may drink younger wines throughout the meal and finish with the older Cha^teauneuf-du-Pape--perhaps with plain strawberries," says Annick Perrin.

"Country people--Francois is one of them--are reluctant to raid their cellars for an old bottle of wine. Whenever I mention I would like to serve an older wine with the dessert, he'll answer, 'We'll see, we'll see.' In the end he always goes and gets it," she says with a laugh. "We open the bottle, talk some more and get to know the wine--and we finish it with the dessert."

In this case, dessert was a luscious fresh peach salad scented with fresh mint and accompanied by pignons, little crescent-shaped cookies studded with pine nuts, and croquants, hard almond cookies scented with orange-flower water. And she was right, he did get the wine and it was a perfect match with the peaches.

AUBERGINES AUX TOMATES

To peel the tomatoes, plunge them in boiling water for 30 seconds; the skin will then be very easy to remove. This casserole should be prepared the day before it is served.

EGGPLANT

Peanut oil

2 pounds eggplant, peeled and cut in slices 1/4 inch thick or thinner

TOMATO COULIS

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 onions, peeled and chopped

3 pounds ripe tomatoes, preferably plum or Roma, peeled and roughly chopped

Salt, pepper

ASSEMBLY

4 to 5 garlic cloves, finely chopped

4 tablespoons flat-leaved parsley, finely chopped

EGGPLANT

Put 1 inch peanut oil in large, heavy skillet and heat until smoking. Fry eggplant slices, 1 layer at a time, until cooked through and golden on both sides. (You may have to add more oil for successive batches.) Drain fried slices in colander or on double layer of paper towels.

TOMATO COULIS

Heat olive oil in large, non-aluminum pot. Add onions and saute until wilted and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add chopped tomatoes and cook gently 45 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper.

ASSEMBLY

Arrange layer of eggplant in rectangular casserole, baking dish or flat platter followed by layer of Tomato Coulis sprinkled with chopped garlic and parsley. Repeat layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with layer of tomato. Cover and refrigerate overnight to allow the flavors to marry. Serve well-chilled.

4 servings. Each serving:

345 calories; 115 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 22 grams fat; 37 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 5.80 grams fiber.

*

Platter in top photo from Freehand, Los Angeles.

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