The Champaign-Urbana area has been having some pretty great weather recently, so of course that means going somewhere like a winery. With outdoor seating and delicious local wine, what could be better? Pairing wine with some delicious cupcakes, of course.

I had the chance to go to the Alto Vineyards tasting room in Champaign, where they were having a Cupcakes and Wine Pairing event. The cupcakes were provided by none other than Cream & Flutter, which never fails when it comes to flavor. I must confess I have had quite a few of the cupcake shop's delectable baked goods and I have never regretted any of my choices.

I have never done a wine tasting, let alone a pairing, so I was really looking forward to getting to know some of the flavor notes that come in wine. I love wine, but I could not say that I really appreciated the complex flavors that accompany it, or the enormous price tag normally attached to wine tasting. However, the event was only $10 per person, and $15 for a couple, which is quite the steal.

Alto Vineyards got its start in 1985, when Guy Renzaglia and his son, Paul, decided to follow the family dream to open a winery. They were among the first to take advantage of the Southern Illinois climate, which happens to be great for growing certain varieties of grapes. At first the family was not sure that this venture would be a successful one, mostly because winemaking process takes time to produce a vintage product. However, they were pleasantly surprised when it gained rapid popularity. In 2001 they opened a Champaign tasting room, and since then they have won over 500 National and International awards in wine competitions.

With this in mind, I felt like I was going into the experience with rather high expectations. As far as wines go, I favor dry reds, and it seems that the wineries in the Central and Southern Illinois area tend to be more sweet. I was happy to find that Alto had a wide variety of wines (yes, including some dry reds). The space was wonderfully cozy, an aspect that I always look for in a good winery, and the outdoor seating was exactly what I would want after a long day. The event itself was hosted in another building, so I did not get the chance to experience it firsthand.

The tasting area was equally enjoyable. The doors were left open so we could still enjoy the beautiful weather and there was a lot of natural lighting. The tables were already set up with the wine glasses and cupcakes, and everyone was able to seat themselves so it was very relaxed. After that there was not much left to do other than the tasting.

The first pairing was the Vignoles wine with a blackberry and lemon cupcake. The Vignoles is a semi-sweet white wine with notes of pineapple and citrus. It is made using a French-American hybrid grape. According to the event host, Southern Illinois has a very similar climate to parts of France, so French grapes do well there.

We were instructed to swirl the wine, smell, and then sip it to get the flavor notes. The very first flavor that hit me was the pineapple. It was a very bright flavor, very crisp, and fairly sweet. I said I was not a sweet wine person, but this particular wine was very tasty. In fact, this VIgnoles won a Governor's Cup award last year. This is kind of a big deal because there are quite a few wines that get tasted at this event, and out of all of those wines this one was chosen.

We are then instructed to take a bite of the cupcake, and then take another sip of the wine. The cupcake was very tasty. The cake had a very zesty lemon flavor, and the buttercream had a slight blackberry taste so the flavors were well balanced. I then sipped the wine, and quite a few things happened. All the flavors that I tasted before were somehow magnified, especially the lemon in the cake. Also, the citrus that I was missing in the initial tasting of the wine was definitely there. I had experience similar effects when pairing coffee with food items, but never with wine. I would have never placed the flavor notes the way I did after tasting the cupcake. Everything became much clearer.

After having that first amazing experience, I was really looking forward to the next pairing. The second wine I tasted was the Alto Festa, a semi dry blend that is Alto’s version of a White Zinfandel. The tasting notes for this are apple and strawberry. When I tasted it for the first time, I did not get the apple at all, but it was fairly dry and more to my liking. It was paired with a vanilla bean cupcake with strawberry frosting. The cake was awesome, very moist with a nice flavor of the vanilla bean and slightly caramel-y. The frosting was also very tasty with just a hint of salt that brightened the strawberry accent.

When I sipped the wine again, a very similar experience occurred with the first pairing. The strawberry did become more prominent, but surprisingly I tasted more of the apple than anything else. It was like biting into a juicy Granny Smith; the flavor was just amazing.

The third pairing was the one I was looking forward to the most. I love chocolate, and third cupcake was a chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream topped with salted caramel. I have never tasted chocolate notes in wine that has claimed to possess such qualities, so I was looking forward to seeing if I could bring them out with the aid of the cupcake.

The third wine was the Rocko Red, named for the Renzaglia family's beloved dog. It is a semi-sweet wine that is full bodied and very rich. I took a sip and it was more complex than the other two. There was a berry note that I could not place, but I did not get any notes of cocoa. I took a bite of the cupcake, and it was everything I wanted it to be. It had a very strong cocoa flavor, and the buttercream was very chocolatey, almost like a truffle. The salted caramel added a nice finish, cutting away from some of the richness of the chocolate. I went back to the wine, and at first I did not taste any notes of chocolate. But after a minute of searching for the right flavor, I landed on dark berries, like blackberries. It is the kind of flavor notes that you find in dark chocolate or even a very rich chocolate cake. Basically it felt like it was suggesting chocolate notes rather than actually processing them.

Overall I had a blast. The whole event was about 45 minutes, and it went very smoothly. Everyone seemed to know a lot about the products they were selling and it made learning about everything so fun. The chocolate cupcake was by far my favorite, but I actually liked the Alto Festa best out of all the wines. The green apple was a very exciting feature, and I definitely did not expect that. I might not become a sommelier, but I definitely want to go to more wine pairings and learn more about the world of wine.

Alto Vineyards' Champaign tasting room is located at 4210 North Duncan Road, Champaign, and open Tuesday through Thursday, noon to 6 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon to 7 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

All photos by Merry Thomas.