Wisconsin uncorks Beaujolais Nouveau season

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Winemaker Philippe Coquard, co-owner of Wollersheim Winery outside of Prairie du Sac, samples pinot noir right from the barrel to determine when it will be ready to bottle. -Photo: COURTESY

Mark your calendars and ready your palates. At one minute past midnight on Nov. 15, the 2012 Beaujolais Nouveau will begin making its way to thirsty wine lovers around the world.

The third Thursday of each November is set aside for the ceremonial release of the new wine from France’s Beaujolais region. Pressed from grapes picked a scant eight weeks before, the wine is light, fruity and intended to be drunk young. Enthusiastic imbibers around the world will race for the first taste.

The Alliance Française de Milwaukee will host its 15th annual Fête du Beaujolais Nouveau on Nov. 15 from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Intercontinental Hotel, 139 E. Kilbourn Ave. At Chez Jacques, 1022 S. First St., the bottles will uncork at 5 p.m., and the wine will be accompanied by a complete dinner with entrée choices that include Beef Bourguignon, Coq au Vin and Moules Marinieres.

For Philippe Coquard, winemaker and co-owner of Wollersheim Winery outside of Prairie du Sac (north of Madison), the event strikes a little closer to home. A native of Beaujolais, Coquard will that same day release his own Ruby Nouveau, a wine he says ties his past firmly with his future.

“Our Ruby Nouveau is very dear to me because it’s really about my heritage and my family,” says Coquard, who arrived at the winery in 1984 as an intern to founder Bob Wollersheim. “Not only does it reflect my roots in Beaujolais, but it also was the first wine Bob had asked me to make when I got to Wollersheim.”

Wollersheim, who died in 2005, liked what his new employee had produced and promoted him to winemaker in 1985. Coquard now co-owns the winery with his wife Julie, Wollersheim’s daughter. The winery was recently named the 2012 Winery of the Year at the San Diego International Wine Competition.

Although similar in style and process, Ruby Nouveau differs from its French cousins in the type of grape used in its production. Authentic Beaujolais Nouveau is produced from Gamay, a red wine grape often found in French rosés. By French law, the grapes must be handpicked and pressed using carbonic maceration, a whole-berry fermentation process that extracts the grapes’ fruit flavors while helping it avoid the bitter tannins from the grape skins. Close to 50 million liters of Beaujolais Nouveau are produced each year for local consumption and distribution to the United States, Germany and other countries.

Coquard uses a similar process with estate-grown Marechal Foch, a heartier red wine grape better suited to the Wisconsin climate. Like Beaujolais Nouveau, Ruby’s brief fermentation time does not allow for much extraction from the fruit, including the tannins from the skin. The result is a wine that is well rounded and easy on the palate, Coquard says.

“This year’s Ruby Nouveau is similar to last year’s as it is softer, fuller and rounder than a typical Nouveau, with an extra deep ruby color with flavors reminiscent of black raspberry and blueberries,” Coquard says. “But that flavor concentration and body is the result of a more concentrated fruit from the dry summer and intense summer sun.”

This summer’s uncooperative weather has reduced slightly the amount of Ruby Nouveau available. But there will be plenty of the wine on hand, especially at the winery’s Nov. 15 release party, which begins at 11 a.m. with a toast to the new vintage.

Serious wine lovers have always challenged the excessive hype around the release of Beaujolais Nouveau, which, because of its youth, does not enjoy the same prestige as its more sophisticated counterparts. Coquard dismisses the criticism, remembering the events of his youth in Beaujolais and the reason for the celebration.

“In my village, Nouveau was always a celebration,” Coquard says. “One of the village’s winemakers would invite all of the others to toast at midnight, and there would be goat cheese and sausage and wine. It was more about talking about the harvest and hunting and the Nouveau of that year.”

The winemaker admits that much of the current attention paid to Beaujolais Nouveau is simply designed to sell more wine. But the hype shouldn’t detract from the wine itself, which has a distinct role to play in global viticulture.

“I don’t think the Beaujolais Nouveau is as popular as it used to be, but I feel it’s still important because it’s really about the celebration of a new vintage,” he says. “It’s a festive time of year and it’s a fun light way to celebrate that first taste of the season.”


For information on the Wollersheim Ruby Nouveau release party, visit www.wollersheim.com. For information on the Alliance Française de Milwaukee’s 15th annual Fête du Beaujolais Nouveau, visit www.afmilwaukee.org. For more on the Beaujolais wine dinner at Chez Jacques restaurant, visit www.chezjacques.com.

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