Smile Politely

Vintage Illinois Provides Wide Range of Tastes from Illinois Wineries

For those of you who missed the trip to Matthiessen State park (one that may remain open even if Blago has his way) for Vintage Illinois this weekend, here’s the wrap-up. Funny, even pithy, t-shirts told wine wisdom. Lots of Harley guys who aren’t really Harley guys but fall into the tax bracket that allows for buying a ‘renegade’ lifestyle. Sunday was a totally chill atmosphere ripe for drinking good wine under a tree with a picnic all day long. One of my companions commented on this being the telltale Illinois festival, wine added. I found it well-organized but wanted better variety in food vendors.

My group tasted about 80 wines from 20 or so wineries. They ran from great to gross. My usual enthusiasm was tested due to rather amateurish mistakes from some (nameless) producers. Shame Shame! But most of the wines were pretty good. I did, however, hope for more wines in the stellar category. Several trends appeared to the group after our highly scientific sampling. Marechal Foch and Vignoles produced reliably tasty drinks full of character and depth. Chambourcin ran the gambit from light and sweet to murky and over-oaked. I really liked several Chambourcins, more below. 2007 Traminette is not up to par. This is one of my favorite local grapes, and I have yet to taste a 2007 with the floral punch I expect.

I discovered several producers who I intend on visiting soon. Massbach Ridge won the day. I liked every one of their wines. Their reserve bottling, a blend of Marechal Foch and Leon Millot, truly surprised me. Big and smoky with a distinct graphite and black currant edge this wine expressed its place. I wish more Illinois producers would make wines that taste like they come from Jo Davies (or whichever) County and stop trying to copy California, etc. Their Foch/Concord called Blackhawk was also worth a trip.

Fox Creek Vineyards also makes a number of wines that show their place. Gordon is unafraid to raise Foch that smells like beets or Catawba tasting of watermelon and foxgloves. I’ve loved his wines for years, and cannot wait to get to Olney to write a column.

Von Jakob, near Pomona, deserves credit for their Ridge Red, the best Illinois Concord wine this year. My tasting partners were beyond skeptical but one taste of this velvety goodness won them over. Not too sweet. Not too tart. Complex yet true to what Concord is. It perfectly captures those end of summer days.

It would be a shame to gloss over the pumpkin wines at the festival. Prairie State and Collver each make different bottlings. I preferred the Collver for the less aggressive spicing and better acid, but both will wow your thanksgiving guests. May I suggest putting some in a canteen for the Morton Pumpkin Festival?

The Chambourcin was a tough bunch this time. We all liked ones from Blue Sky, Fox Creek and Fox Valley. Each of these showed a different style yet retained the black cherry and tobacco spice character of Chambourcin.

Again I found that wineries that spend time either growing their own grapes or that work closely with a vineyard make the best, and most expressive, wines. Sure, some of the shipped-in juice from California made acceptable wine, but why would I pay $20 for a Pinot ‘from’ Chicago when a much better Foch is only twelve bucks? Meeting and chatting with the winemakers delighted me. They really are a proud bunch. Nobody makes wine in Illinois to get rich, and their passion for what they do shows.

By the way, the next time you drive up I-39, stop in Utica and grab a bottle of August Hill’s sparkling Frontenac. It will blow your mind.

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