As I indicated in last week’s article, Sleepy Creek is a magical place; the vineyard is beautiful. The wines are equally special. Sleepy Creek Vineyards offers four different white wines and six or seven reds (depending on availability). They also have a handful of specialty wine items, including their tomato and jalapeno wine. Ben and I took on the difficult task of trying each and every item (sometimes twice!), and we have our thoughts for you here.
Sleepy Creek Vineyards currently grows seven different varieties of grapes: Frontenac, Marcheal Foch, Leon Millot, Rougeon, Vignoles, LaCrescent, and Noriet. Sometimes Sleepy Creek will supplement their wines with other grapes, most of which are also from the Midwest. This allows their wines to be more dynamic and interesting in flavor. Illinois grapes tend to be higher in acidity than other grapes – like California grapes, for instance — and therefore the wines need to have an appropriate balance of acidity and sweetness. Joe Taylor, founder and owner of Sleepy Creek Vineyards, expressed that one of the challenges in making wine in this area is finding a way to tone down the acidity, and they do this in a number of ways.
The sweetness or dryness of a wine mainly depends on when the grapes are picked, and those factors are also determined by the weather and the ways in which the fruits have grown over the course of the growing season. Therefore, grapes grown during a drought (like last summer) may taste differently and yield different wine results than grapes grown during a particularly rainy season. Depending on the type of wine being produced, grapes are harvested before they reach maximum sweetness, or when they are at their sweetest. As the grapes ripen, the acidity levels decrease and the sugar levels increase. For example, at their sweetest, the Frontenac grapes can be composed of about 26 percent sugar. For sweeter uses, the Frontenac grapes are harvested late in the season. The acid in the wine is what provides the tartness, and without any acid, the wine will taste flat. Achieving an appropriate balance of sweet and acid is, perhaps, the biggest challenge in winemaking. The differences in grape varieties, and how and where they are grown, are the main reasons why wines from different regions taste differently.
With the exception of Bull Headed, all of Sleepy Creek’s wines are fermented in hugestainless steel barrels. Bull Headed is fermented in oak barrels. The challenge with oak barrels (in addition to their high cost) is that they are more susceptible to molds. While Taylor stressed that there isn’t anything moldy or nasty that can live in a wine that could hurt a drinker, the molds and other unwanted additions could make the wine taste terrible. Oak can be added to the stainless steel to infuse flavor and oak-essence.
Sweet wines are generally fermented for a shorter period of time than dry wines. Dry reds, for instance, are aged for a minimum of a year, but this period can be extended, depending on the wine, of course. Some sweet wines are only aged for about six months. The barrels have bungholes — really, that’s what they are called — that permits the winemaker to taste at various points along the process, thereby ensuring that the product is up to par and ready for bottling.
The names of the Sleepy Creek often indicate the personality of the wine. The names are creative, playful, funny, and insightful. The label artwork is just as incredible as the wines housed within the bottles, and the experience of drinking these wines is only enhanced by the names and the label artwork. The names, the label art, and the taste of the wines all make for an intelligent, subtle, and sophisticated engagement of the mind and senses. (JH)
Here’s what we thought of the nine wines and three specialty items we tried.
The Dreamer: A favorite of all four tasters, the Dreamer was a mild dry white usually made from the vineyard’s Vidal Blanc grapes, which are a hybrid between Ungi Blanc grapes (commonly found in Pinots) and Rayon d’Ors (commonly found in Sauvignons). In colder climates, Vidal Blancs are able to produce higher sugar levels than most Midwestern grapes while still having a higher acid content. Recently, Seyval grapes from a grower near Mt. Vernon have been used. The combination made for a pleasant taste accessible to a wider range of palettes. (BB)
I have to agree with Ben on this one. The Dreamer was a lovely and accessible wine that could indeed please a number of palettes. The wine was neither too sweet, nor too dry, and it paired well with the Ludwig Farmstead Creamery cheese they had available at the tasting bar. I’d recommend this wine as a bottle to bring to a dinner party, or as a gift for someone whose taste you’re unsure about. Sleepy Creek refers to the subtle fruity and floral tones in it, and these notes pair particularly well with the wine’s name. The flavors aren’t too earthy, and it’s not a heavy sweet wine. This white floats somewhere in between; it’s a little lofty, just like a dreamer. (JH)
Apple (The Fool): Any produce possessing sugar content can be fermented and turned into wine. Apple (The Fool), as the name would suggest, is made with local Illinois apples rather than grapes. The wine was very sweet and juice like, turning off some of the tasters. Surprisingly, the sugar level was not as high as the other wines, but the lower levels of acidity failed to mask its juice box aspects. A glass or two might satisfy a particular craving, but any more would most likely give one a headache. (BB)
The Fool is made with Illinois-grown Yellow or Golden Delicious apples, which are a sweeter variety of apple, so this wine was destined to lean more sweetly than The Dreamer. Making alcoholic beverages from apples is not a new trick, but The Fool a nice alternative to a hard cider. Since it’s a small batch, you should hurry in and try it before it’s gone. (JH)
Sour Puss: A personal favorite, the Sour Puss is a complex, tart wine made from Vignoles and Lecresent grapes from the vineyard and Cayuga grapes from Indiana. I’m not as much a fan of a sweet as I am of tart, more robust tones, making the Sour Puss my choice offering from the vineyard. (BB)
How great is the name Sour Puss? This wine, pitched as semi-sweet, was a sweetish wine that had a dynamic mix of tartness. I found the finish to be a little bitter. The citrus undertones tickled the nose and the back of the tongue, and as the name suggests, had the potential to pucker your mouth into a little sour puss. (JH)
Scapegoat: The Scapegoat is the sweetest white wine offering. Made of Cayuga and Lacrosse grapes, both of which are commonly used to make Rieslings, the Scapegoat has tangy and soft tones. Its sweetness isn’t overly sugary. It would be best paired with some sort of semi-sweet dessert. (BB)
According to Taylor and the Sleepy Creek crew, Scapegoat is one of the more popular offerings. I found it to be incredibly sweet and very grapey, much in line with a white grape juice. Ben’s suggestion of pairing with a semi-sweet dessert is spot-on; I’d try to pair it with a flourless dark chocolate cake, or something similar. I needed something sharp and salty or highly acidic to cut through the fruity, juiciness of this wine, and found a nice respite in some salty crackers available at the tasting bar. (JH)
Bull Headed: While tame compared to most store bought red wines, Bull Headed isthe most savory of the red offerings from Sleepy Creek. It is also the veteran of the pack, having been sold for six years now. Sourced from Western Illinois, the Chambourcin grape variety used to make the wine is a French-American hybrid possessing a dry, semi-sweet flavor. The Bull Headed is unique to the other offerings in that it is aged in the traditional wooden barrel rather than in aluminum counterparts. This selection would best be paired with chocolate or, as the staff at Sleepy Creek suggested, grilled food. I’m particular a fan of heavier, savory reds, and while Bull Headed was not as compelling as I might have hoped, it certainly became my choice offering all around. (BB)
Bull Headed is a strikingly dry and oak-y red wine. It was more full-bodied than any of the other reds. It’s aged in the few oak barrels that the vineyard keeps, and the oak notes are impossible to miss. If you’re into an oak-y red, this is your choice. I found the taste to be woody and a little smoky; I was reminded of smoked meat or bacon. Even though we were not eating grilled foods during our tasting, I imagine that Bull Headed would be an excellent choice for Wieners and Wine (Friday nights, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.), your end-of-the-summer cookout, or an early fall fire pit with hot dogs or s’mores. (JH)
Little Woody: The Little Woody, slightly less dry than Bull Headed and recently available again, is an aged red fermented in stainless steel with vanilla oak. It is made from Marcheal Foch and Leon Millot grapes, both newer grape hybrids first developed in the 20th century. Combining these grapes requires careful planning and cropping, as Marcheal Fochs are best when aged, and Leon Millots ripen early. Both types are grown and sourced exclusively from Sleepy Creek. The taste was a bit too dessert-like for me, as if it was trying too hard to find the middle ground between a heavy red and a table red, but the vanilla hints weren’t unpleasant, offering a viable candidate for those who prefer that kind of taste. (BB)
Another one of Sleepy Creek’s more popular wines, Little Woody is less aggressive than Bull Headed, but not as sweet as some of the other reds. It is indeed a little woody in scent and flavor, with oak notes throughout, and a slight vanilla finish. The vanilla adds a complexity and sophistication I enjoy, and I suggest that you get out and try it before it’s gone (again). I also suggest watching the short Up the Creek episode where they explore the origins of Little Woody. (JH)
Hen Pecked: Hen pecked is one of the sweeter red wine offerings made from Sleepy Creek’s Frontenac grapes, which carry the taste of other red fruits. It tastes best chilled. The berry flavor stuck out a bit too much for my taste. It would pair well with a saltier food. (BB)
As you may have noticed, I like a sweeter wine, and Hen Pecked picked up on the berry sweetness I enjoy. It can be served at room temperature or chilled, and I agree with Ben that it is best served chilled. The Frontenec grapes are generally pretty sweet, and for this particular wine they are harvested later, which means that their sugar content is close to the 26 percent maximum. (JH)
Bashful Ewe: Sleepy Creek’s rosé, like Hen Pecked, is also made out of Frotenac grapes, but the lighter color comes from the skins and seeds being removed before the grapes are fermented. The reason red wines tend to be considered healthier than whites is because they stay in the skin and with their seeds during their transformation into wine. This keeps the skin’s and seed’s vitamins and nutrients in the product. While similar to the Hen Pecked, the lighter taste made the fruity taste a little quieter and more pleasurable. (BB)
Bashful Ewe might be my favorite wine that Sleepy Creek produces. It’s a rosé, and many wine connoisseurs will poo-poo any person’s taste for such a sweet wine. I saydrink what you like, and forget everyone else; the folks at Sleepy Creek will tell you the same. This wine is served chilled, and it although it’s fairly sweet, it’s matched nicely with acid. It’s grapey with a hint of a pomegranate, which I find to be a pleasant play on sweet and tart. Even though it’s suggested that the wine is paired with a fruit dessert, I had it with some cheese and fresh figs, and it was delightful. (JH)
Three Amigos: Advertised as a grape juice with a kick, Three Amigos is made from Concord and Niagara grapes from New York State. Unfortunately, no local grower can produce these table grapes and compete well enough with the East Coast industries mass-producing them for juice companies. The taste was just as advertised, juice-like. The wine snob may turn his or her head at the lack of complexity, but the wine serves as a fun and crowd-pleasing treat. (BB)
Three Amigos is the most popular wine made and sold by Sleepy Creek. As Ben indicated, the vineyard describes it as grape juice with a kick, and there really isn’t much to argue about that. It was cloyingly sweet and very, very grapey. It not only reminded me of grape-flavored candy, but because it’s alcoholic, it also reminded me of Dimetapp. At my age, I can’t say that I would choose this wine to accompany my meal, but my sixteen-year-old self may have gone to town on such a bottle (and sorely suffered the consequences of a sweet-wine hangover). Nevertheless, I encourage you to try it for yourself. And keep it away from the kids. (JH)
These items are only available at Sleepy Creek Vineyards.
Wapatulli: Sleepy Creek’s version of Sangria, made with a combination of their red wines, ice, and fresh orange slices, was a crisp and simple rendition of the classic drink. Sangrias often are too adorned with varying fruits to where all of the flavors become muddled. This minimalist approach proves less to be more. (BB)
This sangria was excellent. I sometimes make the mistake of ordering sangria at a restaurant, and am profoundly disappointed when a glass of Sprite topped with crappy red wine arrives. If I’m lucky, it has a piece of fruit garnishing it. Sleepy Creek’s sangria is done properly. The wine is allowed to be the star of the show, and the fresh fruit that is added not only complements the sweetness and brings out the fruity qualities of the grapes, but also brings the appropriate level of acidity to the sangria. The concoction is an adult fruit punch that I’m eager to drink. A singular glass of sangria is enough reason to venture out to the vineyard. (JH)
Wine Slushy: Oh hell this stuff is dangerously good. The red and white slushy mixes(sold at the store so customers can make their own) are mixed with the Hen Pecked or Scapegoat, respectively, and frozen overnight. The result is a perfectly textured and sweet grown up ICEE. (BB)
I know it sounds ridiculous, but the wine slushies are incredible. They are super delicious. In fact, when I told some folks about my visit to Sleepy Creek, the first thing I told them about was the wine slushy. The white wine slushy was lemon-flavored, and the Scapegoat was the perfect complement to the sourness of the slushy mix. To make these, you add your wine of choice to the slushy mix and put in the freezer. Because of the alcohol content, the mixture won’t fully freeze, so you’re left with something that is semi-frozen, but not soupy or crunchy. The marriage of fruity wine and sour slushy mix creates a beautiful icy delight for your mouth. You can buy the slushy mixes at the vineyard, and I recommend you grab an extra one or two for a middle-of-the-winter tropical party. (JH)
Winey Mary: A unique concoction, the Winey Mary drinks just like a bloody one. Fermented from tomatoes and jalapeños from Indiana and Arcola, Illinois, the drink packs a potent, sweet, and salty punch. Drink it straight, or with the local blood shot mix, also available for purchase. (BB)
Winey Mary was one of the most interesting things I’ve ever consumed. It was incredibly pungent, and my nostrils were puckered and flared before I raised the glass to my face. It smelled like pico de gallo, and tasted like it too. The sweet acid of the tomato hit the front of my tongue, and the jalapeños hit somewhere in the middle of my tongue. The aroma is intoxicating, and as you sip from your glass, it fills your nose and then cascades through your nasal passage and into the back of your throat. This is a wine worth trying, if only because it’s so interesting and different than anything else. It can be mixed with Bloody Mary mix, or enjoyed on its own with an ice cube, salt, and pepper. I imagine that it would also make for a flavorful reduction sauce, or boozy addition to a homemade salsa. (JH)
No matter your tastes in wines, Sleepy Creek has something for everyone. You can taste three wines for free, or you can taste all of the wines (about eight), for only three dollars. That’s practically free. Wines are available by the glass for four or five dollars, and bottles are between thirteen and eighteen dollars. It really is a judgment-free zone, and no one will turn you away if you don’t use wine jargon whilst tasting. So pack a picnic lunch or dinner, and head on out to Fairmont for some excellent local wine.
Sleepy Creek is open Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 6 p.m. They’re located at 8254 E 1425 North Rd., Fairmount, IL. For more information, visit their website or their Facebook page.
All photos courtesy of Chelsea Fisher.