Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Illinois wines usher in fall colors with a dazzling array of flavors

Dwight The Wine Doctor

Illinois wines usher in fall colors with dazzling flavors

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

1. The beautiful Galena Valley in historic Galena Territory, Illinois

2. Ulysses S. Grant’s Home, a National Historic site in Galena, Illinois

3. The rolling vineyards of Galena Cellars

4. Galena Cellars Tasting Room and patio overlooking the vineyards and Galena Valley

5-7 Historic Old Galena

8. The view from the forest floor in the Galena Territory

Galena, Illinois—In just a few weeks, the lush green rolling hills of Western Illinois will take on a crimson and gold hue as summer melds into fall. The smell of freshly rolled hay and the aroma of goldenrod and other wildflowers wafts through the air as a lone bald eagle lolls over the sun-drenched valley below. Its nearing harvest time in the Galena Territory; a great time to taste the new vintages of wines that of late, have been putting Illinois wine on the aficionado’s tasting map.

On a recent edition of the Today Show’s fourth hour, Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb conducted a tasting of wines made in America with Master Sommelier Alpana Singh of Lettuce Entertain You restaurants and host of Chicago Public Television’s Check Please! Alpana has been championing Illinois wines over the past year. Kotb and Gifford picked Blue Sky Winery’s Vignole and Prairie State’s Cabernet Franc as their favorite white and red wines, respectively. Their selections gave a big boost to the reputation of Illinois wines and confirmed the premise that Singh has been touting, that there are some really outstanding finds among wines produced in Illinois.

A visit to Galena Cellars’ tasting room in historic downtown Galena, known as the post Civil War home of President Ulysses S. Grant and to the winery nestled in the nearby Galena Valley, attested to the superior quality of wines produced in Illinois.

Galena Cellars has been making wine since 1983, after Robert and Joyce Lawlor founded two smaller ventures in McGregor, near their home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The established a second winery in an old Milwaukee freight depot in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, before establishing the current winery in 1983 in Galena.

Their daughter, Christine Lawlor-White, took up her parent’s passion and accepted the challenge to become winemaker. In 1975, she became the first woman to receive a degree in enology and viticulture from Fresno State University. Currently, she and her family have a production of more than 40 wine varieties with 60,000 gallons of wine produced annually. Pretty impressive for what started as a small family operation, fostered by a wine making class, taken in the early ‘70s, and an initial output of only 500 gallons of wine!

Christine was tied up, supervising a wedding being held at the winery on the day of my visit, but her able tasting room manager, Rob, guided me through a tasting of about a dozen wines that ranged from semi-sweet & fruit wines, through dessert and specialty wines, on up to semi-dry and dry red and white wines, worthy of gracing any dinner table.

Among the specialty wines the Late Harvest Riesling ($20.50) stood out as a delectable example of his prized wine, which was similar in style to the Icewines I’d recently had in Toronto, near Niagara Falls. Reminiscent of a German Auslese, it had an intense flavor of melons and peaches with a honey finish that makes it perfect with marinated fruit and cheese. For a real taste twist, try it with some Blue Cheese. You’ll be surprised at the flavor rush!

Another favorite was the General’s Reserve Red ($12.99), a big, classic Burgundy-styled wine made from French hybrid grapes. The Illinois Chambourcin ($19.99) was another full-bodied beauty with lots of black cherry and plum on the nose and a touch of American oak on the finish. This is a great barbeque wine and one that I happily paired with a grilled, local grass-fed Black Angus strip steak. You see plenty of prime Black Angus cattle as you roll through the lush farmland near the winery.

Among the whites, the Sauvignon Blanc ($13.50), which I’m drinking as I write this article, is exceptional! It’s loaded with lush honeydew, pineapple and citrus flavor with a light French oak finish for added complexity. This is a light, crisp wine that’s perfect with late summer salads or an all-vegetable dish made with the bounty of colorful squash, corn and heirloom tomatoes available at your local farmer’s market. I ordered a case of this one.

The only way to get Galena Cellars wines is by purchasing it at the winery or on the Internet. A lot of wineries are going the direct-to-consumer route and are having a great deal of success. The prices are lower for some really quality wines because they cut out the ‘middle man.’ Wines can be shipped throughout Illinois and to California, Colorado, Washington, D.C., Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin. For more information, visit www.galenacellars.com.

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