By David Hammond
Illinois is not generally recognized for its wine. Napa, Willamette Valley, parts of New York and Virginia, sure. But our state? No, not really.
Having tasted wines in regions as disparate as sunny Havana and cool Quebec, it’s clear that wine can, indeed, be made anywhere. Even here.
Wine has been “made” in Illinois for some time, but a lot of the juice has come from other regions like, say, California. It’s way more difficult to grow good wine grapes on the Great Plains than it is in sunnier states, but if you want a taste of the state, you want to drink wine made of grapes grown here.
At Galena’s Wine Lovers’ Weekend, we were more than a little surprised to taste a lot of wine made from Illinois-grown grapes.
We brought a few bottles to Alpana Singh, Master Sommelier and restaurateur whose Seven Lions (130 South Michigan) serves only domestic wines.
The first wine we tasted was Chambourcin from Galena Cellars, which winemaker Christine Lawlor told us was “one-hundred-percent Illinois grown.” Opening the bottle, Singh swirled the wine and observed: “It has a black cherry center with a magenta rim, very grapey looking, very young. Good extraction. Cinnamon bark in the nose, so maybe some oak aging, tastes like Red Hots. Spiced cinnamon plums or pear, like red-wine poached pears. Almost like glögg. Got some heat on it, not from alcohol, more the acidity. I like the texture, soft silky, not grippy with tannins. Fairly short finish, and it leaves you with a mouthful of sour cherries and tart acidity. It’s pleasant. I’m impressed.”
My experience with tasting wine, beer, burgers or whatever is that the first one I taste frequently has an advantage because the palate will never be fresher or more ready than before the first sip or bite. I try to correct for my tendency to give too much credit to the first wine I taste.
Next up was Homestead Red from Rocky Waters. Tasting this second bottle, Singh said “This has a little Pinot Noir funkiness to the nose. I like it. The acidity is pretty sharp, maybe because of the Marechal Foch grape [one of the grapes in this wine]. On the front end, it’s got the potential for fruit but it gives way to acid. It could be the grape is very high in acid. That acidity just sears, and there’s just no fruit to balance it out.”
A challenge with local wine is that in Illinois and other cooler climates, we have such a short growing season that the grapes may not have a chance to fully ripen, resulting in higher acidity and less fruit taste.
The last wine in our tasting was Massbach Reserve from Massbach Ridge Winery. The last entry in any tasting is at a major disadvantage. Even having had just a few sips of other wines, my palate was somewhat jaded. As I smelled the Massbach Reserve, the first thought that came to mind was “caramel.” Singh concurred, “Getting chocolate in the nose, like chocolate-covered raisins, Milk Duds. The same color, black cherry with magenta, which is very common with these wines from Illinois. Pick up a lot of dark fruit, with hot pink at the edge. This reminds me of Kool-Aid powder, also a smoky rubbery quality, like a char or smoke. This is very tart, the acidity on this is quite aggressive; I can’t even taste the fruit. It’s soft and very one-dimensional: a laser beam of acid, very sharp and distinct.”
After tasting these three wines, we returned to the Chambourcin, just to see if it still held up. It did; Singh: “Now you can really taste the fruit, quite pleasant, soft and silky with mouth-filling fruit. Aggressive acidity is not there. This is by far my favorite. Chambourcin is kind of the runaway hit of the day. It has a lot of potential. I like it. I would seek it out.”
Singh suggested that these wines might pair well with fatty meat, so I and my three bottles headed over to Barn & Company (950 West Wrightwood) and enjoyed a few sips with pitmaster Gary Wiviott, who also favored the Chambourcin with his BBQ ribs. “This wine brings out the best in the meat,” said Wiviott. I concurred: wine and meat met in the middle and encouraged the good tastes in each other. I thought the Rocky Waters and Massbach Reserve also fared much better with a big bite of barbecue than they did alone, and that might be the big general take-away from this tasting of Illinois wines: given where the wines grow, they have higher acidity, so they pair with full-flavored, fatty food. Ribs are a good way to go when drinking Illinois wines.