Saturday, May 29, 2010

Wine Tasting in Illinois?

In the pursuit of furthering my wine education and expanding my palate, I’m always looking for something different… something I’ve never tried before such as experiencing a different varietal, vintage or appellation.

Exploring wines isn’t just about finding wines I like, but trying something new just for the sake of the experience and having better understanding the world of wine. So, if I try something exotic but it turns out I don’t like it I chalk it up to a new educational experience so that I can say, “I’ve learned something new about wine!”

While every state in the union produces wine most of the American wine you find at your local store is from California, followed by Washington and then perhaps Oregon. While some great wines are produced in New York and elsewhere they don’t have has wide a distribution and it can be near impossible to find them in California.

In a recent trip to Harvard Illinois I looked for a winery to visit but there wasn’t one within reasonable driving distance so I searched a local wine shop with the intention of trying something local. The store’s shelves were filled with wines from California, Australia, Chile, Italy and France but I couldn’t find one from Illinois.

So, I inquired of the store manager, “Have you got any local Illinois wines?”

He then pointed me in the direction of the only local wine in stock which sat rather isolated on a bottom shelf – “Velvet White” from Illinois Cellars. There was no indication on the label what grapes this wine was made from, only that it was sweet and had an alcohol of 12%. It sold for about $8 so I figured even if I didn’t like the wine it would be worth the cash just for its educational value.

I put the wine in my hotel refrigerator to put a chill on it and later that night I opened it with a friend I invited to share the experience. Then with pen and paper in hand I coached this wine while swirling, sniffing, swirling and more sniffing…

It had a unique aroma of what seemed to me to an overwhelming musky-radiator antifreeze (glycol) odor, followed by honeydew melon, dried fruits, pineapple, a mild pine note and a hint of jasmine. On the palate it had a somewhat syrupy consistency with an obvious sweetness but lacking in acidity. I made a guess that perhaps it might be a Riesling blended with a Native American grape varietal which might be giving what is referred to as a “foxy” smell I’ve read about (but never tasted) in wine books. After sampling a single glass of the wine I then replaced the cork, deciding to try it again the following day.

The next night I pulled the cork and it was quite clear that the musky smell had for the most part dissipated and the wine seemed even more like a Riesling. I kept the bottle as a souvenir, deciding to do some further investigation of the wine on the internet when I got back home in California. 

According to Illinois Cellars’ web site, “Velvet White” is made from the Niagara grape and it is cold fermented on Sauvignon Blanc yeast for 10 weeks. As I had guessed, the wine is made from a Native North American varietal – the Niagara grape. Wines that are of European origin (Cabernet, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir etc.) come from the species Vitis vinifera, so unless you have had a Native American wine grape varietal youve probably never tasted a wine from this species.

The Niagara grape is from the species Vitis labrusca and are usually used as table grapes as well for making jams and juice. Niagara is the leading green grape grown in the United States. The Niagara grape was created in Niagara County, NY in 1868 when C.L. Hoag and B.W. Clark cross-bred Concord grapes with white Cassady grapes. It was first sold commercially in 1882. They are most commonly found in the United States in New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Washington, and Ohio, and are also grown in Ontario in Canada, as well as in Brazil, and New Zealand. While only rarely available fresh outside of these areas, Niagara grapes are well known to most American consumers as the source of most white grape juice.

While I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to buy this wine again, it was an interesting experience and I hope to try other wines made from the Vitis labrusca species in the future. To learn more about Illinois Cellars and their wines, check out their web site:

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