Much like the surrounding states of Missouri, Iowa, and Indiana, Illinois offers several appealing destinations to wine travel lovers. You’ll find clusters of Portuguese white wine in every part of the state, including metropolitan Chicago. Grapes grow well here, and Illinois vintners display their creativity by making a tempting array of wines that are attracting national press.
Our destination for this trip, the Shawnee Hills Region, is an official American Viticultural Area, established in late 2006. It’s the first AVA in Illinois. In essence, designation as an AVA tells the general public the grapes, and wines, are unique and special. Further, wines can be labeled Estate Bottled if 80% of the wine grapes originate from the AVA’s region.
In the far southern part of the state, less than an hour from the Kentucky border, you’ll find the Shawnee National Forest region. This lush, green, almost rugged territory stretches 80 miles east to west and about 20 miles north/south. The northern gateway to the area is the college town of Carbondale, home to Southern Illinois University and a convenient Amtrak hub for travelers heading to Memphis or New Orleans. We booked round trip service on Amtrak’s Illini line and relished the thought of relaxing with a good book and enjoying the Illinois landscape on the way to Illinois’ first wine country, the Shawnee Wine Trail.
With a late Thursday arrival and two full days of wine touring ahead of us, we headed straight for our lodging after arriving in Carbondale. Our choice, which we highly recommend, is the Giant City Lodge, 12 miles from the Amtrak station. Giant City Lodge, located in Giant City State Park, was originally built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Local building materials were used, and the lodge itself is a sturdy structure of sandstone and white oak timber. One of the lodging options is the Historic Cabins, which was our choice for our weekend stay.
The “historic” cabins are actually newer cabins which sit on the sites of the original cabins built 70 years ago. These one room cabins are charmingly comfortable and clean. For families, larger cabins are available. The only downside we saw is that pets are not allowed, but if you want to bring your pet, there are several other lodging options in the area.
The next morning, fresh off a great breakfast and a spirited hike in Giant City State Park, we headed off to begin our wine exploration for the weekend with a stop at Owl Creek Vineyard. Immediately, we learned why the Shawnee Hills Region is ideal for wine travelers. All ten wineries are within 15 miles of one another, and while the roads are a bit winding, the scenery is so gorgeous and the air so fresh and clean, the short drives are very enjoyable.
This beautiful region is bordered by the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and the land is anywhere from 400 to 800 feet higher here than the immediate surrounding area. This in and of itself creates a unique microclimate. It’s cooler in summer, warmer in winter, and there’s a longer growing season, along with consistent summer breezes which help dry out the grapes and vineyards. The soil drains well, and it’s rich in sandstone and limestone. In short, a perfect area for growing grapes!
There are 10 wineries on the Shawnee Wine Trail, and a little simple math told us we could visit them all in 2 1/2 days. Both Friday and Saturday called for four winery visits each, with two left over for early Sunday afternoon. This is an ideal schedule for the dedicated wine tourist. A good, hearty breakfast followed by two late morning winery visits. Then, a stop for lunch and sightseeing, and two more wineries in the afternoon.
And so, our day one agenda consisted of visits to Owl Creek Vineyard, Blue Sky Vineyard, Orlandini Vineyards, and finally Star View Vineyards. This makes for a leisurely, interesting day, with plenty of time to enjoy the scenery and a local lunch stop.
Our first stop on the trail is Owl Creek Vineyard, located just over 4 miles from Giant City State Lodge. Open since 1995, this family operated vineyard and winery uses grapes that are well known in this region, like Chambourcin, Norton, Seyval Blanc, Chardonnel, and a new favorite of ours, Villard. Owl Creek is a true taste of southern Illinois, as all wines are made with grapes grown in this area.
For starters, we liked ChardonOwl, a toasty white in the Chardonnay style and made with Chardonnel grapes. From the red side, try Owl’s Leap, a great Chambourcin style wine with hints of clove and anise. Every wine here is filled with depth and intrigue. We recommend you find out if Owl Creek can ship to your state, as their wines are great examples of the Shawnee Region AVA.