by Jay Kitterman, consultant, LLCC Culinary Institute
Hello readers! A few years ago Lincoln Land Community College, as part of its workforce initiatives, identified growing industries in the state. One I gladly offered to explore was Illinois wine. This month, I have invited my good friend Bradley Beam to tell us more about Illinois wine. Brad is the enology specialist for the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association. He has the great job of visiting with wineries in the state and advising them on all aspects of wine production. Brad also teaches wine appreciation classes at our college and next spring, will teach wine making at Danenberger Family Vineyards in New Berlin. You can contact me for more information if you are interested, at email@example.com or 786.2772. Now, let’s learn about Illinois wine from Bradley Beam!
Take a look around the Illinois landscape and you’ll see miles and miles of recently harvested corn and soybean fields. What you probably don’t see (unless you already know where to look) are the vineyards distributed throughout the entire state. Since August, over 1000 acres of grapes were harvested, mostly by hand, and are now in the process of becoming amazing Illinois wines. This season was one of great promise, as the extended dry months of late summer and fall were ideal for ripening grapes. Keep your eyes peeled over the next couple of years, as the fruit from harvest 2015 should be in the bottle as early as next spring for the white wines, and two to three years down the road for dry reds.
But what are you keeping your eyes peeled for, exactly? For that matter, was does “Illinois wine” really mean? As enology specialist for the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association, it’s a question I get often, and probably the toughest to answer in just a few words.
1: Illinois wine is part of your cultural history!
Prior to prohibition, Illinois was home to an estimated 5000-6000 acres of grapes, which were grown for fresh eating, processed juice and other foods, and, of course, wine. Unfortunately, the enforcement of prohibition largely discriminated against highly-visible vineyards while small-batch liquor and cheap beer producers slipped through the cracks. Most of Illinois’ vineyards were destroyed. Additionally, and probably more significantly, we lost the knowledge of grape and wine production, which was typically passed down from one generation to the next. We also drifted from the cultural connection we have with wine and food, to be consumed regularly, but in moderation, as part of a healthy lifestyle. This story is repeated throughout the Midwest, but it is apparent that locally-produced wines were very popular at one time in the eastern U.S. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow even once wrote a poem entitled “Ode to Catawba Wine,” a common grape grown throughout the Midwest in the mid-1800s, which several wineries still make to this day.
2: Illinois Wine is an important part of Illinois agriculture!
It takes a lot of work to grow grapes, pick grapes, process grapes into wine, and sell that wine to consumers. The Illinois grape and wine industry employs around 4000 people full-time. We also drive tourism dollars around the state, especially in rural areas. In 2012, the industry attracted over 500,000 tourists, which brought in over $50 million in tourism-related expenditures. While most of our wineries can’t compete with the big California wineries on price alone, we can provide a high-quality product which reflects the local terroir: the interaction of the site, climate, grape varieties and people to make a wine unlike any other in the world. We can also provide a great time, with many wineries hosting events and festivals around the state all year long.
3: Illinois Wine is diverse!
This is the tough part to define. Collectively, Illinois vineyards produce over 100 different grape varieties. Here are a few prominent grape varieties in Illinois:
- Chambourcin is a versatile red grape which benefits from the long hot growing season in southern Illinois, and makes excellent quality dry red, sweet red, rosé, sparkling and fortified dessert wines.
- Norton is considered to be native to the Eastern U.S, and has a distinctive aroma and flavor that works well as a dry red and fortified dessert wine. It’s fairly cold hardy, and can be found in the southern 2/3 of Illinois.
- Vignoles is an aromatic white grape which is one of the most popular in Illinois, and its intense fruit aromas and flavors make amazing dry to sweet table wines or even late-harvest dessert wines.
- Marechal Foch is a red grape which prefers the colder conditions up north, and makes a lovely old-world style light red, but can also be used in rosé or off-dry reds.
- Marquette is an exciting new red grape for northern growers, which makes a wonderfully complex dry red wine in the Burgundian style.
- Frontenac gris is an aromatic, grey-fruited mutation of the red ‘Frontenac’ grape which is grown in northern Illinois. Depending on how it’s processed, it excels as a white, rosé, sparkling and even late-harvest dessert wine.
There is no “best” grape for all of Illinois, rather only the “right” grape for each specific site and desired wine style. Having so many varieties to think about can be challenging for consumers, but it’s better for newbies to focus on wine style (dry oaky red, dry light red, sweet white, etc.) than specific varieties. We also make wines from fruits other than grape, including apple, cherry, peach, all kinds of berries and even pumpkin! Most Illinois wineries have at least 10-15 wines available at any given time, so there is probably something on hand that will suit your palate.
4: Illinois Wine is all around you!
No matter where you live, there’s a great Illinois winery close by. In the Springfield area, you have several within 30 miles of downtown, including Cooper’s Hawk at White Oaks Mall, Danenberger Family Vineyards in New Berlin, Hill Prairie Winery in Oakford, Walnut Street Winery in Rochester and the new West of Wise Winery in Petersburg. Each has their own style, and something unique to offer visitors. Also, if you’re looking to dip your toe in to see what Illinois wine is all about, a festival is a great way to test the waters. In Springfield, our next big event is the 2016 Winter Wine Festival, which will be held at the Crowne Plaza on Feb. 26. We’ll have registration information posted soon at www.illinoiswine.com, as well as links to all the wineries mentioned above.
So, what is Illinois wine? Well, it means something different for everyone. For some, it’s about having a great time. For others, it’s about the wonderfully unique wines. For me, it’s really all about the people behind the products. Grape growers and wine makers are some of the best people you’ll ever meet. The world of wine is often perceived as elitist, but if you met the producers, whether in Napa Valley or New Berlin, you’d notice that the people behind these products couldn’t be more down-to-earth. In Illinois, the owners are the producers, and they work endlessly to bring these products to your table. They also manage the tasting room and event planning to make sure you have a great time during your next visit. In Illinois, we all share the goal of not only giving customers great wines, but also providing a little insight into why we love what we do. Please go visit an Illinois winery today!
Bradley Beam is the enology specialist for the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association. He helps Illinois Vintners with all steps of wine production. In addition he teaches wine appreciation and wine making classes at Lincoln Land.