Smile Politely

Illinois State Fair Competition Showcases Local Wines

I have no burning interest in the upcoming Beijing summer games. While I may try to watch some fencing or swimming, winter’s luge is more to my taste. Besides, the medal contest I really follow occurred in early June in Urbana.

Over 250 wines competed for medals at the Illinois State Fair Competition held at Bevier Hall on the University of Illinois campus. The judges assessed entries using a predetermined rubric. While each of the 12 judges added their own professional wine experience and personal taste to the process, this scorecard allowed objective comparisons between wines of different styles, sweetness and ingredients.

Judges’ decisions came from analyzing specific attributes of each wine. For example, points are given to the color; likewise, the smell. In sum, these individual points translate the overall quality of that bottle into a numeric score. If total points fall within a medal range, Gold, Silver or Bronze, that wine earns a medal. Under this system, every bottle can potentially receive a gold medal. Conversely, there is no requirement mandating a minimum number of medals.

Overall, wines were very to extremely good this year. More than 85% received a medal of some kind. 37 wines earned gold medals. This speaks very well for the Illinois wine industry. My personal feeling is that every wine entered should be of sufficient quality to earn at least bronze. This isn’t grandpa’s barnyard brew and should give people who buy them value and pleasure. I am happy that most wineries came through.

Many of us overlook wines produced locally in Illinois. Greater consciousness of where our food comes from leads consumers to seek out beets and chickens from down the road, yet our bias towards established appellations prevents us from the classic pleasure of drinking and eating locally.

The following wines received Governor’s Cup Gold medals at the 2008 competition. That means they represent the best wines grown in Illinois from their category. Receiving a gold medal is not what makes these wines worth trying. They all have unique personality, and I can tell you that each one is delicious. Think of this list as a starting place to begin your own love affair with Illinois wines. Some of these are available at retailers, but purchasing most requires a trip to the winery. Don’t be shy.

Prairie State Illini Cabernet Franc 2007 (Genoa, Illinois)
Not much Cab Franc is grown in Illinois, but look out for more awesome wines from this grape in the coming years. Dusty raspberry, bright cherry and earthy mocha notes on the nose give way to ripe tannin, impeccable balance and a long, rewarding finish. Perfect herbal and smoke notes add depth to already delicious berry fruit in the mouth. I plan on adding a case of this dry red to my cellar this summer.

Blue Sky Vineyard Seyval Blanc 2007 (Anna, Illinois)
Seyval often produces wines compatible with Riesling-lover tastes. This is a light, crisp summer white that balances pear and floral aromas with green apple in the mouth. Delicate pineapple notes fill the finish. This is as dry as your average Pinot Grigio.

Lynfred Seyval 2007 (Roselle, Illinois)
Lynfred is one of our urban wineries that buys fruit from growers instead of managing their own vineyard. This is sweet and tropical, drinks like a Spätlese and never winds up too sweet. I see this as a perfect partner to all manner of southwestern-style foods. My peppers are just about ripe, and this would help balance the salty-cilantro-hot of homemade salsa.

Willett’s Frontenac Rose 2007 (Manito, Illinois)
Produced from Frontenac grapes grown at their vineyard near Spring Lake, IL. It’s hard to describe just how beautiful this wine looks in the glass. A nice sweet tart cranberry, cherry, dark chocolate aroma and flavor continues all the way through the finish. While there is a bit of sweetness to this rose, lively acidity makes this out right refreshing. This is a rose that can be taken seriously and will handle your spicy grilled chicken or BBQ spareribs this summer. Bring on the dry rub!

Pomona Kir 2006 (Pomona, Illinois)
A classic Kir is a glass of white wine with a splash of crème de cassis. Pomona’s take on this marries their apple and black currant wine and manages to restrain the sweetness to create a perfect aperitif.

Kickapoo Creek Nort Noir NV (Edwards, Illinois)
Oh yeah. 100% Norton grown by the winery and growers south of Carbondale. Classic port-style wine with layers of black cherry, raspberry, coffee, caramel and chocolate framed with grip and finesse. As good or better than nearly every other port I’ve ever had, this is the perfect way to warm up on these rainy days of late or save for winter.

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