Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Illinois makes wine

The excellent website Appellation America notes that Illinois now has its first AVA, that is, its first official American Viticultural Area. AVAs correspond in definition to the much older appellations of European wine-making countries, such as Bordeaux, Chianti, or Rioja: they are both a region where grapes are grown and wine made, and, more specifically, a set of climatic and/or soil conditions in that region, which should and do give the grapes and the wines produced there specific characteristics. The United States has 188 Viticultural Areas, and Canada 21 (called DVAs, or Designated Viticultural Areas).
Illinois' premier AVA is Shawnee Hills, south of Carbondale.

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There are nine vineyards in the area. If you read the full post on Shawnee Hills, you will see that the winemakers anticipate "a potential" for vitis vinifera grapes in the future. One man mentions chardonnay and cabernet franc in particular. But if vinifera only has potential, what are they growing and making wine with now?
They are growing varieties like Seyval Blanc, Chardonel (both white), and Chambourcin (red). All seem to be hybrids, produced by crossing Old World, vinifera varieties, albeit non-noble ones, either with one another or with native American vitis labrusca grapes.
How will the wines taste? Your palate is the best judge. The problem with labrusca varieties, though perhaps not with vinifera blending hybrids, is that they produce wines of grape jelly-like uniformity and sweetness. For some reason, this recognizable --I would call it Manischevitz -- taste of New World wines has for years been described as "foxy." Some authorities say that this bizarre descriptor comes from the fine, white hairs on the underside of labrusca grape leaves, which resemble fox fur. Some counter that foxy comes from the French queue de renard, fox's tail, which is what Frenchmen said when they first tasted New World wine (it doesn't sound as if it was a compliment, although a nice barnyard aroma in a fine wine can be).
A good example of a New World wine, made from non-vinifera grapes, would be Mount Pleasant Harvest Red. This comes from the Augusta, Missouri, AVA, which (Mount Pleasant proudly notes) was the first American AVA ever designated. It even officially predates Napa, California. It would be interesting, when you have a leisurely Saturday afternoon to while away, to try a glass of something labrusca-ish beside a glass of something vinifera, to explore the difference between "foxy" and "fine." And incidentally, labrusca grapes are not to be confused with the wine lambrusco, made from the grape of that name. Lambruscos are sparkling, sweet reds (or whites) from northern Italy; Ca' de' Medici and San Giuseppi are two producers. To me they have a strange, cooked, raisin-y taste, and I wouldn't come running for them. But perhaps I've been unduly swayed by my old friend Frank Schoonmaker, who wrote of lambrusco more than thirty years ago in his Encyclopedia of Wine, "they are Italy's best wine of this class. It is not a class likely to appeal to a real wine lover, let alone an expert."
Oh dear. One so hopes to like what is classy ....

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