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Schrader: Blue skies for Illinois’ Shawnee Hills wine trail

Illinois is home 91 wineries 450 vineyards encompassing 1115 acres grapes across state. In 2009 state produced 357000 gallons wine.

Illinois is home to 91 wineries and 450 vineyards encompassing 1,115 acres of grapes across the state. In 2009, the state produced 357,000 gallons of wine. | File Photo

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Updated: December 9, 2012 7:14PM



All roads lead to Southern Illinois; or so they should. The Shawnee Hills National Forest, located just south of Carbondale, is one of Illinois’ best-kept secrets. But not for long. In 2006, Southern Illinois’ Shawnee Hills wine country was garnished with the distinguished title of an American Viticultural Area (AVA) by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and the area has been receiving national recognition in the wine industry ever since.

The AVA designation means that winemakers can include the Shawnee Hills region name on bottles of wine that are made up of at least 85 percent of the wine’s volume from grapes grown in the AVA. The title also endorses the area as a superior wine region, producing high-quality wines that are reflective of the region’s soils and climate, completely unique to southern Illinois.

It’s a straight shot south on Interstate 57 from the Chicago land area. About 4 hours into the trip, you’ll notice that you’re getting close to the Shawnee Hills. When the flat farmland abruptly meets the hills of the national forest, be assured that the rolling vineyards that make you dream of places far and wide are just a short distance away. The area’s topography is unique since it was untouched by glaciers, unlike much of Illinois north of Carbondale. The combination of long growing seasons with mild winters and limestone bedrock provides a solid foundation for grape growing, making the area a unique wine-producing region.

Several grapes dominate the Shawnee Hills AVA; Chambourcin, Traminette, Vignoles, Chardonel, Norton, and Chardonnay to name a few. But my favorite is the Cabernet Franc, a dry red wine touting black fruit and plum flavors with a mild oak finish; a perfectly versatile wine to sip during the cold months ahead.

Winemaker Karen Hand of Blue Sky Vineyards, located on the eastern side of the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, has received numerous awards for her Cabernet Franc. When the varietal was originally planted in 2003, the vineyard was taking a chance, since the ability of the grape to hold up through a Midwest winter was uncertain. But the risk has reaped many rewards, and the grape has been producing award-winning wines being recognized all over the country. Hand’s goal of making quality wines from quality grapes stems from her philosophy of creating estate bottled wines, wine produced solely from grapes grown on the Blue Sky Vineyard property, upholding the spirit of the Shawnee Hill’s AVA that reflects the unique characteristics of the land.

There are 12 wineries along the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, all within a short driving distance from one another. The area makes for a perfect weekend destination, with many charming accommodations scattered throughout the countryside. Looking for a unique getaway — try staying in one of Blue Sky Vineyard’s suites located in the winery, modeled after a Tuscan-style villa. All wineries can be visited year round.

To learn more about the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, visit www.shawneewinetrail.com.

Alto Vineyards, 8515 Illinois 127, Alto Pass; www.altovineyards.net

Blue Sky Vineyard, 3150 S. Rocky Comfort Road, Makanda; www.blueskyvineyard.com

Hedman Vineyards, 560 Chestnut Street, Alto Pass; www.hedmanvineyards.com

Hickory Ridge Vineyard and Winery, 1598 Hickory Ridge Road, Pomona; www.hickoryridgevineyard.com

Honker Hill Winery, 4861 Spillway Road, Carbondale; www.honkerhillwinery.com

Kite Hill Vineyards, 83 Kite Hill Road, Carbondale; www.kitehillvineyards.com

Orlandini Vineyard, 410 Thorn Lane, Makanda; www.orlandinivineyard.com

Owl Creek Vineyard, 2655 Water Valley Road, Cobden; www.owlcreekvineyard.com

Pomona Winery, 2865 Hickory Ridge Road, Pomona; www.pomonawinery.com

Rustle Hill Winery, 8595 US Highway 51, Cobden; www.rustlehillwinery.com

Starview Vineyards, 5100 Wing Hill Road, Cobden; www.starviewvineyards.com

Von Jakob Vineyard, 230 State Rt. 127 N., Alto Pass; www.vonjakobvineyard.com

Caroline Schrader is a wine writer and wine consultant serving the Chicago area. Follow her on Facebook and visit www.carolineschrader.com.



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