To most consumers, the concept of Illinois wine is a recent one, and indeed, there has been an explosion of new vineyards and wineries throughout the state in the past 15 years. In 1997, there were only 12 producers; today, there are more than 90.
Even less well-known is that the history of grape growing and wine production in Illinois goes back to the late 1700s, when French settlers in the area which is now Peoria planted vines and produced wine as they had in their native land.
In 1857, the Baxter family opened their winery in Nauvoo, and it remains the oldest winery in the state, now run by the fifth generation of Baxters. By 1900, Illinois was the fourth-largest wine-producing state in the country (interestingly enough, it was Missouri - not California - that was the largest producer at that time). In Illinois, as in most of the country, the onset of Prohibition was the death knell for wine production, and most wineries pulled out their vines and returned to planting corn and soybeans. It is only in the last 15 years that we have seen a resurgence of grape growing and wine production in the state.
While grapes are grown throughout the state, there are only two federally recognized AVAs, or American Viticultural Areas. The Shawnee Hills AVA covers a good part of southern Illinois and is home to many producers and some of the best wines. The Upper Mississippi River AVA is a large region that covers parts of Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
There are a total of six Illinois Wine Trails that offer an opportunity to see the scenery and taste the wines of distinct regions throughout the state.
The climate in Illinois is too cold in winter to allow the survival of traditional European grape varieties such as Cabernet or Chardonnay, so instead we see hybrid grape varieties where traditional grape types have been crossbred with native vines to produce hardier grape varietals. For red wine, the most common varieties are Chambourcin and Norton; the latter is sometimes referred to as Cynthiana. For white wine, the most common grapes are Seyval, Vignoles, Chardonel and Vidal.
The quality of wine still varies quite a bit from producer to producer, as the combination of young vineyards and often-inexperienced winemakers can lead to inconsistency. However, the overall quality of Illinois wine is improving rapidly with each passing vintage, so stay tuned for further improvements and try a few bottles.
Here are some of our favorites, with approximate retail prices.
While these are my suggestions, branch out and try any bottle that looks interesting. You will probably be glad you did.
A special thanks for assistance goes to our Illinois wine specialist at the Corkscrew, Mary Lynn Gietl-Deloney, and the Illinois Wine Growers for its help with background material.
Story published Friday, September 2, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 5 )