According to Monticello Historians, it was in the late 1770s that our country’s third President, Thomas Jefferson and his partner, Italian Vigneron, Phillip Mazzei attempted to establish the first commercial vineyard in America. Less than a decade later, cites the Peoria Historical Society, French settlers brought the craft of winemaking to La Ville-le-Mailet now the site of downtown Peoria.
Jefferson and Mazzei’s venture ultimately failed, but the once burgeoning wine industry in America has survived war, pests, disease, inclement weather, and Prohibition to impact the American economy significantly. The Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association, (www.illinoiswine.com) reports that revenue from the state’s wine industry exceeds $253 million dollars annually. It has enticed companion businesses such as Bed and Breakfasts, arts and crafts venues, restaurants, festivals and tourism to an industry that continues to florish.
There are over 90 wineries and 450 vineyards in Illinois. What’s the difference? According to the IGGVA, “A vineyard is an area of land equipped for the cultivation of wine grapes.” Whereas “A winery is the establishment at which wine is made.” Illinois wine is predominately produced from six varietals or types of grapes. These grapes include; Chabourcin, Seyval, Vignoles, Chardonel, Vidal Blanc and Norton.
With the exception of the Norton varietal, the remaining five are “French Hybrids” which are cross-pollinated with native American vines to withstand the extreme weather conditions of the Midwest region. The disease resistant Norton grape, once an early staple of American winemaking, is resurging in popularity. It produces a dry somewhat spicier version of Cabernet Sauvignon and is becoming well known east of the Rockies, particularly in the
Midwest where this hardy rootstock thrives.
Tasting is Fun…
A great way to become familiar with Illinois wines can accomplished by following one of the states six designated wine trails. Whether you’re planning a romantic get-a-way, or a weekend wine tasting with friends you’ll find a winery nearby. Most Illinois wineries are located within thirty miles of an Amtrak (www.Amtrak.com) station, and several are in cities serviced by train.
The IGGVA is a helpful source for planning your wine discovery trip. You’ll find a wine trail guide and map as well as links to wine shops and Bed and Breakfast establishments throughout Illinois. Print out the coupon toward the purchase of one bottle of wine from participating wineries by clicking on the Illinois Amtrak Bed and Breakfast Guide.
Whether you’re new to the esoteric intricacies of wine tasting or a seasoned Sommelier, Illinois wines are a delightful discovery just waiting for you to savor.