There’s something special about September in southern Illinois. Our vineyards are buzzing with excitement, grapes are hanging heavy on the vines and glasses everywhere are raised to celebrate harvest. September is Illinois Wine Month and it’s a great time to appreciate fine wines from the Shawnee Hills American Viticultural Area.
Southern Illinois is home to the first designated wine trail in the state, the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, and is also home to the first American Viticultural Area (AVA) in Illinois, the Shawnee Hills AVA. The Shawnee Hills region produces unique and diverse wines, with different flavors and characteristics that are receiving national and international recognition. That, combined with amazing winery experiences, breathtaking scenery and southern hospitality and the Shawnee Hills wine industry has become a driving force for southern Illinois tourism.
Shawnee Hills Wine Trail: A Lesson in Cooperation
Formed in 1995 with only three wineries, the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail has grown to 11 member wineries that work together as a marketing cooperative. Hosting several events each year, including Wine & Food Pairing Weekends, their Holiday Open House, a Winter Passport Program and live music on the weekends, this group of passionate winery owners is proud to share the fruits of their labor and send guests down the road to the next winery.
“A rising tide lifts all boats.”, said Shawnee Hills Wine Trail Executive Director, Brandy Nance. “Each winery on the trail offers a variety of award-winning wines and experiences for our guests to enjoy and we want to share them all. It’s neighbors helping neighbors, southern Illinois hospitality at its finest.”
Set among the scenic countryside and located on a 45-mile loop through Union, Jackson and Williamson counties, wine trail travelers are encouraged to visit local shops and restaurants along the way, stay at a cabin or bed & breakfast, hike in the Shawnee National Forest and enjoy a multitude of experiences during their visit. Nance said, “We recognize the importance of cooperation with our county, local tourism bureau and supporting businesses and know that this cooperation is what makes us a competitive tourism destination. Cooperation is the key to our success, not only as the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, but the region as a whole.”
Today, having been formed over 25 years ago, the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail looks forward to continued growth and many more years of sharing their passion for grapes and wine with travelers from all across the world. Click Here to see complete Shawnee Hills Wine Trail History.
Shawnee Hills American Viticultural Area: Wines of Distinctive Character
An AVA is a geographical area recognized for grape growing that has distinguishable growing conditions, such as climate, soil, or elevation, that differ from surrounding areas. An AVA designation allows vintners and consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation, or other characteristic of a wine made from grapes grown in that area to its geographic region.
The Shawnee Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA) became the first AVA in Illinois on December 27, 2006, with its boundaries encompassing 2,139 square miles and 1,368,960 acres. This designation established the region within the Shawnee Hills boundary as a unique grape growing area in southern Illinois.
Terroir is the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including such factors as soil, topography and climate. The climate and characteristics of the land the grapes are grown in have such a profound impact on the wines you drink. Each wine is truly unique because of its terroir.
Ted Wichmann, petitioner for the Shawnee Hills AVA and one of the founding members of the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail says, “Terroir is the single most important thing about wine. It is more important than the variety, the producer, or the cost. It is the thing that makes a wine unique, rare and valuable.”
Seeing the Shawnee Hills designation on a wine label will assure consumers that that wine has been enriched by the region’s characteristic grape attributes. Wichmann says, “Due to thin, infertile loess soils and the chalky limestone bedrock, similar to the best viticultural regions in France, vines in the Shawnee Hills must truly suffer. This produces grapes and wines of intense flavors and aromas not found in many regions of the world.”
Wines made with fruit grown within the boundaries of the AVA were recently awarded Governor’s Cups, Best of Class and Double Gold Awards at the 2021 Illinois State Fair Wine Competition. Shawnee Hills wines have been recognized in numerous competitions for the technical quality and exceptional flavor profiles that are unique to their wine-grape growing region.
“The Shawnee Hills wine industry is still relatively young”, says Nance. We’ve come a long way in that time and look forward to continued improvements. The increasing recognition of the Shawnee Hills wine region for producing quality wines and unique guest experiences is a testament to the hard work and commitment of everyone involved. “
What Makes the Shawnee Hills Region Unique?
- The name is derived from the Shawnee Hills Indians who occupied these hills in the early 1800’s. The area is an un-glaciated 800 to 1,000 foot ridge of limestone extending from the Mississippi to Ohio rivers in southern Illinois.
- Shawnee Hills elevation ranges from 400 to 800 feet higher than the glaciated land to the North and the delta/coastal land to the South. Many of Illinois’ highest elevations are located within the Shawnee Hills American Viticultural Area.
- The Shawnee Hills maintains a unique meso-climate with warmer winter temperatures and a longer growing season resulting from higher elevations. This allows the fruit to fully ripen prior to harvest and tends to generate higher sugar levels, producing higher alcohol wines that display fresh, rich fruit aromas and flavors.
- The topography of a site plays important roles in grapevine growth and quality, and also has interactive effects with climate elements. Topographic factors that exert the greatest influence on a site’s climate include elevation and slope. The Shawnee Hills AVA features karst topography with limestone bedrock sinkholes, caves and surface springs.
- The Shawnee hills is made up of primarily thin loess soils. This allows for superior surface and internal water drainage.
Click Here to learn more about the Shawnee Hills American Viticultural Area.
Celebrating Illinois Wine Month is easy on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail. The wines are fine, September weather divine and winery events are in full swing. That, together with hometown hospitality and we’re sure you will enjoy your Shawnee Hills wine experience. Cheers!