Smile Politely

The Best Illinois Wines of 2008

With respect for the time-honored tradition of end of year naughty/nice lists and all those pesky resolutions, I present my own list of several wines I enjoyed drinking in twenty-o-eight. These are in no particular order and range in flavor. Take these as a shopping list for next year.

Nort Noir NV
Kickapoo Creek Winery, Edwards, Ill.
Illinois may develop a reputation for producing top-flight dessert wines. This port-style wine really makes that a reality. It beautifully combines power and fines, harmony and grace, dense and ethereal … sun and moon. As good or better than 85% of wines of this style on the market, from anywhere, period. Dense with boysenberry, black cherry, slate, cola, cocoa, spice, licorice and tar notes. Keep this for a bit if you can keep you hands off it.

Reserve Red 2006
Massbach Ridge, Elizabeth, Ill.
Besides just being delicious, this wine combines four finicky grapes into a beautiful whole. Smokey and meaty on the nose, and the cedar and sandalwood overtones help frame the bright cherry and raspberry found in this bottle. A delicate bottle reminiscent of light reds from the Loire valley. It perfectly expresses both its place and style. A blend of Marechal Foch, Frontenac, Leon Millot and GR7 (sounds space-agey, doesn’t it?).

Cabernet Franc 2007
Prairie State, Genoa, Ill.
Can I tell you how sad I am that I drank all of my 2006? This vintage also has a good five to eight years of development in it and should keep for 10-plus years. Classic cab franc personality with a medium body, round tannin and vibrant acidity. I can hardly wait to see how this changes in a few years.

Sparkling Frontenac NV
August Hill, Utica, Ill.
Sometimes you just need a wine that smells of raspberries and cocoa, which delivers all the pleasure of prosecco yet can stand up to woolly mammoth. Yes, it’s a bit sweet. No, you shouldn’t care.

Vignoles 2007
Mackinaw Valley Vineyard, Mackinaw, Ill.
One of those wines you just want to smell forever. Vignoles sometimes makes big sweet wines and sometimes light refreshers. This is far from those typical styles. A beeswax and vanilla nose is buttressed by flavors of baked apple, pear, cinnamon, nutmeg, cherry pez, smoke and preserved lemon peel. Crazy, and what is most surprising is the bone-dry finish. Truly a special wine. You will have to travel to the winery to get this vintage, but the trip is worth it.

Norton Rsv 2005
Spirit Knob, Ursa, Ill.
This is a library offering from these guys and is drinking great now. Meaty and bold, like Norton should be, with distinct cherry notes throughout. I love the length and complexity from this. Norton is notoriously hard to work with, so results vary widely between producers. I also liked the Spirit Knob Vidal Blanc 2007 that contends for Illinois white of the year. Flavors of melon, wax, tea, tangerine and lemon make this a pleasure to drink.

Chuck Carle Rougeon/Blackberry/Blueberry 2007
Olney, Ill.
I had this wine at the annual competition hosted by the Amateur Winemakers of Central Illinois, and yes, Chuck Carle made this from fruit grown in his backyard. Simply amazing. Totally dry yet it retains all the fruit aromatics of blueberry and blackberry. A decadent nose of mustard seed, caraway, pine, earth, bramble vanilla, cherry, and tar gives way to a long and complex finish. I wish I could buy this. Great work!

Strawberry Dessert Wine 2006
Pomona, Pomona, Ill.
Fresh Southern Illinois strawberries are made into a bad ass sweet wine that possess perfect balance and never, ever hits too sweet. I think “electric fuchsia” correctly describes the color of this in the glass. One of those guilty pleasures we can get away with since traditional wine rules need not apply to our wines.

Chambourcin Slushy!
Sleepy Creek, Fairmount, Ill.
Guilty pleasure number two. I would never have ordered this on my own. It was delicious, refreshing and not unlike a blackberry margarita. What I like best about this is how it completely takes all pretense away from the wine experience and lets “Bud” guys feel comfortable exploring wines.

Persimmon Solera NV
Purgatory Cellars, Birds, Ill.
Now persimmons are a special thing. My pop planted three or four trees when I was a kid, and (dagnabbit!) the squirrels never let us make pudding. Most people wild harvest persimmons in these parts. So I was happy to discover somebody doing this and making commercial wine. They claim this is the only commercial persimmon solera wine in existence. I have no reason to dispute this claim stateside, but check out my next overseas trip purchase. So this is a wine made from stuff grown in the wilds of Southern Illinois, made into sherry and part of the mother that is now more than a decade old. I am blown away by how wonderful this is. The natural tannin and acid of the persimmons gives body and weight, and all the nutty, caramel and toffee notes that cream sherry exhibits come forth in spades. Better than many sherries from Jerez. Decadent, thick, aristocratic. There is nothing else like this from Illinois.

Thanks to all my readers for the feedback. I look forward to an exciting 2009!

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