Wine 101: Area wineries create unique vino blends to capture all palates

By Marshanna Hester

May 15, 2013 Updated May 16, 2013 at 10:00 PM CDT

CENTRAL ILLINOIS -- Paul Hahn, co-owner of Mackinaw Valley Vineyard, believes you've got to be a little crazy to get in the wine business.

Luckily for him and his wife Diane, crazy turned out to be clever.

It's been 10 years since they opened what they call "wine country in your own backyard."

"This was a corn field when Paul bought the property," said Diane. "So everything you see here was planted or built by him."

Grapes span 14.5 acres to create 22 varieties of vino at Mackinaw Valley Vineyard, many of them award-winning.

But you won't find any popular bottles of wine, like Merlot or Zinfandel at an Illinois winery. Those grapes can't survive the cold winters.

Diane said what they can grow produces one-of-a-kind wines that can stand up to anything.

"A good analogy is the Seyval Blanc that we grow, is a hybridized form, with parentage back to the Sauvignon Blanc that many people are familiar with," she said. "It would take a very sophisticated palate if you take our dry white Seyval against a Sauvignon Blanc to have someone discern the difference."

In 1998 there were 15 wineries in the state. There are now more than 90, generating more than $250 million a year.

Rory Conner is the Executive Director of Kickapoo Creek Winery.

He said, "most of the wines produced in our area are sweeter wines. It's not necessarily because the wine makers themselves enjoy those types of wines, but for the area itself, that's what is selling, sweeter wines."

The 22 wines produced at Kickapoo Creek Winery are made on site from grapes grown on 15-acres, and from juices and grapes purchased from local farmers.

Conner said sales are increasing about 15 percent every year, and expects this year to be one of the most productive.

There haven't been hot spring days and the April showers haven't hurt the crop. But he said too much rain is bad.

"The wetter they get the more plump they get, they lose their concentrations," said Conner. "And when the grapes are stressed or there's a drought, they actually like that, there are more concentrations of the flavors and sugars."

Mother Nature's unpredictability means, each year, customers will have a different experience with the same wine.

The flavor of a vino made with grapes from last year's drought will be more intense compared to a wet year.

"I think some of the local customers like it, some don't," said Diane. "But we're not trying to be the McDonald's of wine making. The wine's will vary from year to year."

As the years pass, some expect the industry's growth to slow and the loss of some wineries.

But that, they said, will increase the wine quality, and Illinois can gain the notoriety it deserves as a Midwestern wine state.