September represents a month of transition… from the muggy heat of summer to the crispness of fall, from lazy relaxation to the rigors of school and work, and from lush, green landscapes to the gold, orange and red hues of harvest season. For a steadily increasing number of Illinois grape growers and winemakers, it also represents a transition from grapes to wine! Welcome to September, also known as Illinois Wine Month.
Illinois’ grape and wine history dates to pre-Prohibition, but the modern industry actually began in the early 1980s. Since then the industry has grown in size and quality, and continues to expand and improve each year. There are over 100 wineries and 300 independent grape growers around Illinois, including several located within an hour of Peoria.
The “Illinois Wine” brand enjoys a broad definition, as the climate, soil type, topography, grape varieties and wine styles offered vary widely throughout the state. Each winery also has its own personality, making it almost impossible to provide a simple answer to the question, “What is Illinois wine?” For some, it represents a host of local travel destinations and new places to explore. For others, it’s more about unique, world-class wines made right in their backyard. For still others, it’s about connecting with the pioneering spirit of local entrepreneurs as they wind their way through the exciting and challenging world of grape and wine production in the Midwest.
Illinois Wine Is Tons of Fun!
While most wineries have regular hours for visits and tours, many also offer eclectic food and live music, host weddings and private events, and some even have live theater onsite. Regional festivals are held all around the state and are a great opportunity to enjoy locally produced wines from many different wineries at a single location. Vintage Illinois—the largest wine festival in the state—will be held at Starved Rock State Park on September 21 and 22, featuring live music, great food and outstanding wine from 24 Illinois producers. More information is available at vintageillinois.com.
Illinois Wine Is Making Great Strides In Quality
Too often an entire industry is judged based on a single experience. The development of new, high-quality wine grapes for the Midwest climate, along with increased experience in grape and wine production, has led to a tremendous surge in the quality of Illinois wine. For new consumers, the challenge is finding the right wine to taste.
With more than 100 wineries producing anywhere from 10 to 40 wines each, the thought of diving in can be daunting. It can be helpful to start by looking at wine competition results, and the Illinois State Fair Wine Competition is likely the one with the most Illinois wines represented. It takes place every June and receives between 300 and 400 entries. Illinois’ wine quality is on the verge of gaining national and international recognition as an “up-and-coming” region to watch—now is the time to dig in while Illinois is still under the radar. Complete competition results are available at illinoiswine.com.
Everything’s Coming Up Rosé!
In 2016, efforts were begun to create a signature wine style for Illinois: dry rosé. Rosé is made by limiting grape skin contact with the juice during processing, which restricts the amount of color extracted into the wine. These wines are attractive, aromatic and easy to enjoy. This style was initially chosen due to the potential for several Illinois red grape varieties to make world-class rosé wine. The selection of rosé also happened to connect very well with current national and international wine trends. The wines accepted into this program must meet stylistic goals set by industry leaders, and then are subjected to peer evaluation to determine if they qualify for the project. These outstanding 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. For a complete list of 2019 signature wines, visit illinoiswine.com.
The People Make the Product an Experience
Illinois grape and wine producers are some of the most interesting, passionate people you’ll ever meet. They’re also quite humble and down-to-earth. Most are self-taught and come to grapes and wine from a completely unrelated profession—including ex-teachers, ex-carpenters, ex-laborers, ex-doctors, ex-engineers and ex- just about any other job you can think of. You won’t get any eyerolls in the tasting room, as these new winemakers can relate to the overwhelming nature of wine and are happy to share their experiences with you as you taste their wines for the first time. At smaller wineries, the tasting room staff 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 the people and process behind it.
So, What is Illinois Wine?
There are so many variables that a simple definition is impractical. However, there are many great opportunities available to help you find out—be it at a local wine shop, a day trip to a local winery or two, or a visit to a multi-winery festival. This September, get out, engage and find out what Illinois wine means to you. Cheers! PM
Peoria resident Bradley Beam was the Illinois State Wine Specialist from 2006 to 2018, and is currently a winemaking consultant working with grape growers and winemakers throughout the Midwest.