by Jay Kitterman, consultant, LLCC Culinary Institute
This past summer, Lincoln Land Community College once again partnered with the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association to host the 2019 Illinois State Fair Wine Competition. The competition has two parts – Amateur and Professional. The competition is held in our Bistro Verde in the Workforce Careers Center on campus. For the final part of the judging, the nine judges had over 40 Illinois wines in front of them to evaluate. Some of the winners this year were Galena Cellars for Best of Show for their Effervescence de Frontenac Gris and Prairie State Winery in Genoa, Illinois won the Governor’s Cup for their 2017 Cabernet Franc.
In doing a little research, I discovered that the first record of winemaking in Illinois dates back to 1691 in an area just north of what is now Peoria. According to the IGGVA website, Frenchmen Tonti and Francois Daupin de LaForest built a fort in the area. Surrounding the fort was a winepress. Today there are over 100 wineries in the state and over 274,000 cases of wine are produced.
Since September was Illinois Wine Month, I asked IGGVA’s Director, Ms. Lisa Ellis to tell us more about Illinois Wine, their new Rosé Project, and scenic Illinois wine trails. Thank you Lisa for providing the following information.
Illinois grape and wine producers are some of the most interesting and passionate people you’ll ever meet. They’re also very approachable, quite humble and down-to-earth. Most are self-taught and come to grapes and wine from completely unrelated professions, including teachers, carpenters, laborers, doctors, engineers, and just about any other job you can imagine. Our winemakers can relate to the sometimes overwhelming nature of wine, so there’s no need to worry you’ll get the side-eye in their tasting rooms. In fact, they are more than happy to share their experiences with you, and help you find the perfect wine for your palate. With a wide variety of grapes used for wine production in the state, it’s easy to say that Illinois wine producers have a wine to fit every palate – dry to sweet, red, white or rosé. At smaller wineries, the tasting room staff often get to spend plenty of time in the vineyard and winery, and it’s not uncommon for the person pouring your wine to be an owner of the facility. A visit to an Illinois winery puts you face to face with not just a product, but a judgement-free zone that highlights the people and process behind the wine.
Fall is generally the time of year when you begin to see smiles on the faces of Illinois grape growers, as the season-long fight to produce high-quality grapes is about to culminate with the harvest. Producing grapes in the Midwest is not easy, and 2019 was particularly challenging. Our growers fought to maintain quality and productivity despite challenges like a polar vortex, excessive spring rains and the fungal diseases they can bring, late summer drought, and insect and animal predation. These challenges, though not new by any stretch, have the added stress of unpredictability, which is why we maintain that Illinois grape growers are some of the best in the world. Many industry experts agree with our assertion, and you can see that for yourself! We highly recommend opening a bottle of Illinois Wine and streaming Wine Diamonds: Uncorking America’s Heartland, a documentary featuring several of our Illinois winemakers and grape growers.
Additionally, there is a relatively new statewide initiative to discover: Illinois Rosé. In 2016, Illinois growers and winemakers began to pursue rosé as the state’s signature wine style. Rosé is made by limiting grape skin contact with the juice during processing, which restricts the amount of color that is extracted into the wine. These wines are attractive, aromatic, and easy to enjoy. This style was initially chosen because of the potential for several Illinois red grape varieties to be made into world-class rosé wine. Lucky for us, this choice also happened to connect very well with current national and international wine trends. The wines that are accepted into our signature series program must meet stylistic goals set by industry leaders, and then are subjected to peer evaluation to determine if they qualify for the project. Our outstanding Signature Series wines have won numerous medals at local and international wine competitions and have performed exceptionally well when included in blind tastings with French and California rosé wines. You can visit our website (illinoiswine.com) for a complete list of 2018 vintage Signature Series wines.
Ready for Illinois wine to change your palate? Then right now is the perfect time to get out and visit one of our vineyards or wineries. We’re home to over 100 of them – and you can find them easily with our interactive map on illinoiswine.com. While the labor of the 2019 growing season is almost over, the work in the winery is just beginning. If you get out and visit a winery soon, you’ll get to see some fabulous fall colors and experience a little of what goes on behind the scenes to produce high-quality Illinois wine.