Illinois Wines

Illinois is not typically known for its wines, but for more than a century the state has produced a wide variety with little recognition. Join us as we explore the budding wine culture with certified sommelier Clara Orban, author of "Illinois Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide."

Read a book excerpt, and test your wine knowledge with our quiz below.


Illinois Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide

By Clara Orban

Chapter 5

Courtesy of Hogg Hollow Winery, LLC

Hopefully you’re interested in this book because you want to taste Illinois wine during your tour of Illinois. To describe wines as you enjoy them, you need to develop vocabulary. Most of the vocabulary of wine consists of adjectives and nouns describing odors. Many of the nouns are, in fact, common: blackberry, violets, amber (white), and so on.

Adjectives used to describe wines tend to be of sensations, tastes, or smells, since appreciating wines is one of the most satisfying sensory activities. Some drinkers find it difficult to identify wine aromas. It seems difficult to home in on the exact smells a wine may impart. You may ask yourself, What is that somewhat tangy smell—lemon? Tomatoes? You can tell there is something beyond the smell of alcohol but it’s mysterious—maybe mushrooms? Identifying exact smells can be one of the most frustrating aspects of wine tasting as you begin your journey. It also tends to be one of the most potentially intimidating. If everyone else in the tasting room identifies honeysuckle in the white wine, but to you it “smells like wine,” you may think your future as a wine enthusiast is doomed.

Courtesy of Hailey’s Winery, Ltd.

Fear not. Wine tasting, identifying the hundreds of potential smells a wine can emit, begins with developing your olfactory memory. You should start to associate wine smells with things they remind you of, someone you know, or a previous experience. Try to focus on what you remember when you think of that person or event. For example, if you eat lots of red meat, notice how the meat smells a bit like iron. Red meat indeed has iron-containing compounds, so there’s no surprise that you can identify that smell when you eat the meat. If you try to concentrate as you smell things, and make associations, you should be able to become an expert wine smeller!

When you are smelling wines, some aromas fall into “main categories,” into which fall subcategories and special aromas. For example, in the “woody” category, you may be able to distinguish burnt wood from resinous wood. You may be able to further distinguish cedar and oak in the resinous wood, or coffee in the burnt wood.

Courtesy of Lincoln Heritage Winery

You may want to get a copy of the “tasting wheel,” first developed at the University of California, Davis. It can help you find adjectives and nouns to associate with smells. Illinois wine, as we’ve seen, tends to be produced from hybrid grapes. This means in terms of tasting they will mainly contain a mixture of smells from the Vitis vinifera grape that bore the hybrid. Hybrids thrive in Illinois, and in much of the Midwest, because they bring the hearty, resistant characteristics of Vitis labrusca (mostly) to mix with the flavor characteristic of Vitis vinifera (Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and so on). The grape chapter of this book contains most of the grapes used in Illinois, along with some aroma characteristics. Remember, the flavors listed here are only a few common traits that many wine drinkers can discern in the wines. You may be able to identify an entirely different set of smells and tastes. That remains one of the most pleasant aspects of wine tasting: “owning” a wine by defining its taste for yourself.

Read more of Chapter 5.

Excerpted from Illinois Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide by Clara Orban. Reprinted with permission of publisher.


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