Illinois has been quite proactive in recent years in terms of wine travel marketing. For many years, the state’s far southern area just south of Carbondale was the only Illinois wine region worth noting. All that has changed in the last few years, though. What was once a small cottage industry has blossomed into a credible agritourism attraction.
Because Illinois is one of the larger states in the U.S. geographically, the terrain is quite varied. West of Chicago toward DeKalb and beyond, Illinois prairie landscapes stretch for miles and miles. In the extreme northwest part of the state near Galena, the terrain becomes hilly as the Mississippi River helps create a rich and fertile river valley where wine grapes thrive.
Heading south along the Mississippi toward St. Louis is the river town of Nauvoo, an Illinois wine pioneer. Baxter Winery was established here in the 1850s and has operated more or less continuously since, producing juice and grape products during Prohibition. In recent years, numerous vineyards and wineries have sprung up in this area, taking advantage of the favorable terroir for growing grapes.
The Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association (IGGVA) reports there are almost 90 wineries in Illinois. Several, such as Fox River Winery based in Oswego and Galena Cellars in Galena, have multiple branches so the number — including tasting rooms and satellite branches — is closer to 100. In addition to the traditional Illinois wine country in the southern part of the state, you will find Illinois wineries just about everywhere.
The varied terrain also allows Illinois vineyard owners to successfully grow several types of wine grapes. The most common varieties are French hybrid grapes like Vignoles, Seyval, Chambourcin and Vidal Blanc. Southern Illinois vineyards produce a fair amount of Norton grapes as well. Illinois is becoming quite well known for Chambourcin-based wines, a red wine style that offers a deep full flavor and body.
Within the last ten years, two American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) have been designated in parts of Illinois. The first was the Shawnee Hills American AVA in southern Illinois. The most recent designation, in 2009, created the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA, which is the largest in the United States. This AVA encompasses parts of Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Overall, the Illinois wine industry is thriving. The state ranks in the top 15 wine producers in the country and several wineries are producing nationally recognized wines. The biggest difficulty for the industry seems to be recognition within its own state. Lobbyist influenced liquor distribution laws seem to limit consumer ability to buy Illinois wine at local liquor outlets as large, nationally-known wines dominate shelf space. Various annual events sponsored by the IGGVA have helped consumer awareness, as has the designation of several new Illinois wine trails. Thankfully, weekend wine travelers are willing to make a pilgrimage to their favorite Illinois wineries to help support local winemakers.
Illinois Wine Trails
One aspect of the Illinois wine industry benefiting from forward thinking legislation is the development of several wine trails in the past few years. There are now seven Illinois wine trails scattered across the state.
Illinois is divided into four separate wine producing regions which correspond with the state’s geography. The northern, central, south central and southern regions all have one or more wine trails for wine lovers to explore. We’ll start from northern Illinois and work our way south.
The Northern Illinois Wine Trail is wide reaching, geographically speaking, as it stretches east to west about 200 miles. Visiting all the winery locations will definitely take several weekends, and you’ll experience a mix of big city (Chicago) and historic small town (Galena). Twenty nine different locations are listed on the trail, although several are branches of one winery.
Of particular note are the handful of wineries in the far northwest corner of Illinois, ending at Galena, a wonderful historic town near the Iowa border. Iowa wine country is just beyond Dubuque, a charming river city along the Mississippi. Near the Galena area is the highest point in Illinois, and the valley scenery is spectacular. It is particularly noteworthy during the colorful autumn season.
Illinois River Wine
The next Illinois wine trail is the Illinois River Wine Trail, that gets its name from the Illinois River, which meanders southwest across the state toward Peoria and ultimately the Mississippi. This middle portion of Illinois is where the topography shifts from flat plains to river valleys with rolling hills and towering bluffs.
The Illinois River Wine Trail hosts seven wineries, most within a two hour drive of Chicago. Two wineries are located in the charming town of Utica, gateway to the much beloved Starved Rock State Park. The trail also extends south to Hill Prairie Winery in Oxford, Illinois, about 45 minutes north of Springfield. With a little planning, you can visit the entire trail over the course of a weekend and experience central Illinois farm country along the way.
Heartland Rivers Wine Trail
Illinois’ newest wine trail is the Heartland Rivers Wine Trail, located in southwestern Illinois within an hour’s drive of St. Louis. This is a perfect wine trail to experience rural middle America, with friendly small towns.
Organizers of the Heartland Rivers Wine Trail have taken a progressive marketing approach, partnering with other local attractions to spotlight southwest Illinois as a wine travel destination. Local restaurants, bed and breakfasts, specialty shops, museums and more are given the opportunity to join as partner members and participate in the benefits of wine trail marketing. Currently, there are 12 wineries on the trail, and each can be easily reached within a two hour drive from St. Louis or Springfield.
Traveling the Heartland Rivers Wine Trail is an endless adventure through Southwest Illinois. Travelers enjoy the extraordinary flavors of Southwest Illinois wineries – from their sophisticated dry reds to the popular sweet country wines. Each winery offering a unique and often surprising experience. The trail’s twelve wineries follow a tradition of fine winemaking established by early settlers of Illinois who brought their wine making expertise from Europe. Each winery is different. Small to medium in size, all proud of their well-crafted red and white wines that range from bone dry to dessert sweet.
Although the Heartland Rivers Wine Trail is new, there’s a mix of newer and older Illinois wineries along the way. Several of the wineries have opened in the past five years, while GenKota Winery in Mt. Vernon is one of Illinois’ oldest. We’ve visited a handful of wineries in this area and you’ll find a real diversity of wine styles available. Chambourcin, Chardonel, Norton and selections of sweeter wines are most common.
Shawnee Hills Wine Trail
Next is Illinois’ oldest and best known wine trail, the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail. The 12 member wineries are all located in a unique microclimate bordering the southern Illinois college town of Carbondale and the Shawnee Hills National Forest. From anywhere on the trail, you’re about a 30-minute drive from Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, and part of Missouri’s wine country.
The Shawnee Hills Wine Trail is very popular, as it receives in excess of 100,000 visitors per year. Outdoor activities abound in all four seasons, though summer and fall are most popular. The wine trail itself is quite compact — a 25-mile loop — making it possible to comfortably cover the trail in a weekend. Many visitors find a more leisurely experience visiting during the week, which is generally advised if you desire a more personal visit.
The entire Shawnee Hills area also offers a burgeoning art scene, and it’s not uncommon for local artists to display their wares at various wine trail sponsored events. The area is also well known for its many bed and breakfasts, several of which are located at wineries.
This area of southern Illinois boasts its own AVA, the Shawnee Hills American Viticultural Area. This designation reinforces this area’s reputation as one of America’s most respected wine producing locations. Steep cliffs, canyons and deep forests combine to form a very unique microclimate where temperatures can vary 15 to 20 degrees from surrounding locations. Most wines you buy here will have the notation “Shawnee Hills” on the bottle, indicating the wine is at least 85% comprised of grapes grown in the AVA.
Southern Illinois Wine Trail
Farther southeast near the Illinois and Kentucky border are five wineries of the Southern Illinois Wine Trail, also known locally as the Shawnee Winery Cooperative. This small group of farm wineries are producing some excellent wines, particularly the well balanced and delicious Shawnee White from the Shawnee Winery in Vienna (it’s one of our favorite Illinois wines!). This trail is in close proximity to the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, only about 20 minutes away and south of the intersection of Interstates 24 and 57.
A good base of operations to explore these extreme southern Illinois wineries is Paducah, Kentucky. Paducah is 30 minutes away on Interstate 24 just over the Ohio River. A historic river city, Paducah is becoming well known for a thriving arts community, along with a surprisingly diverse culinary scene. Learn more about Paducah at the Paducah visitor information site.
Wabash Valley Wine Trail
Another new Illinois wine trail is the Wabash Valley Wine Trail. This cluster of four wineries is located in the southeastern section of Illinois along the Wabash River and the Illinois-Indiana border. This is actually a dual state wine trail, as three of the wineries are in Illinois and one in Indiana.
The Wabash Valley Wine Trail is quite easy to navigate since all the wineries are within 30 miles of each other, making it an ideal one-day excursion. You can best explore the area’s wineries by staying in Vincennes, Indiana, Indiana’s oldest city. Vincennes is located on the Wabash River. It offers a university town feel and several historic attractions, including the home of William Henry Harrison, the 9th president of the United States.
East Central Illinois Wine Trail
The seventh and final Illinois Wine Trail is the East Central Illinois Wine Trail. There are six wineries on this trail in the area near the intersection of Interstate 57 and 70 near Effingham, Illinois. The website also includes the four wineries on the Wabash Valley Wine Trail, so it’s possible the two trails have combined into one website. The intersection of the two interstates is often called The Crossroads of America, due to its almost central location in the United States.
Almost anywhere you travel in Illinois, you’ll find a wine trail or winery close by. You’ll get a real taste of middle America and enjoy small town hospitality along the way.