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U of I farmland near St. Charles building a better grape for Illinois

Sr. Research Specialist Bill Shoemaker walks through University Illinois' St. Charles Horticulture Reasearch Center's vineyard thhas over dozen different varieties

Sr. Research Specialist Bill Shoemaker walks through the University of Illinois' St. Charles Horticulture Reasearch Center's vineyard that has over a dozen different varieties of hybrid grapes in St. Charles on Tuesday, May 29, 2012. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 29, 2012 4:30PM

While it will never be mistaken for California’s bucolic Napa Valley, a farm field off Peck Road not far from the Kane County Judicial Center in St. Charles Township is playing a key role in the development of the growing Illinois wine industry.

The land is the University of Illinois’s St. Charles Horticulture Research Center. Along with its high tunnels (unheated greenhouses used to extend growing seasons) and crops more typically associated with Illinois such as sweet corn, tomatoes, and pumpkins, about half the land being cultivated is vineyards.

“Grapes are one of the more interesting crops to work with and are very responsive to experimentation. I really enjoy it,” said Bill Shoemaker, senior research specialist for food crops.

Shoemaker has been working at the St. Charles location for 28 years and is retiring after this season. Over the last few decades grapes have become a bigger focus of the site’s research, he noted.

That coincides with the renaissance of the wine industry in Illinois. While the nouveau industry builds, Shoemaker noted wine making has been part of the state’s heritage dating to French settlers in what now is Peoria in the 1770s.

Shoemaker said the state’s oldest operating winery is Emile Baxter and Sons in Nauvoo along the Mississippi River, which opened in the late 1850s and remains in the Baxter family.

By 1900, Illinois was the fourth largest wine producer in the United States. But Prohibition hit the state’s wine business hard, with growers switching to corn and soybeans. The recovery didn’t begin until the late 1970s, and more wine businesses began to blossom in the last few decades, Shoemaker said.

Funding research

According to the Northern Illinois Wine Growers website, 25 years ago, the state held seven or eight wineries and 100 acres of vineyards. Now there are about 80 wineries and more than 2,000 acres of vines.

That organization and the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association fund the wine-related efforts at the St. Charles extension.

The work also is associated with the Northern Grape(s) Project, USDA-funded research that, the organization’s website says, “will help producers overcome production and marketing constraints and increase the profitability and sustainability of emerging cold climate grape and wine industries in the Midwest and Northeast.”

According to information from the two Illinois wine groups, the state now boasts two federally designated American Viticulture Areas: Shawnee Hills in Southern Illinois, which has 21 wineries and 55 vineyards, and the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA, the largest in the nation, that includes the bluff regions of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois and which includes 32 wineries and 445 vineyard acres.

Shoemaker said hills help grapes survive cold spells as the air temperature just 40 feet above a low spot can be 10 degrees warmer.

Obviously, weather is a big issue here in the Midwest, with its wild swings of conditions. Shoemaker SAID European wine grapes cannot handle temperatures of more than 10 degrees below zero, while some wild grapes native to the United States can survive temperatures 30 degrees less than that.

So experiments involve crossbreeding European grapes which have been developed over centuries to create certain taste characteristics, with hardy North American varieties which hold up to indigenous pests, disease and climate conditions.

Growing hybrids

Shoemaker works with commercial grape growers in northern Illinois to address production challenges, vineyard health and fruit quality.

One project currently underway involves growing 15 hybrid varieties of grapes that will be planted four times to determine the best varieties across several variables. Another involves smaller samples of 100 grape varieties, with no planting replication and the goal to measure the potential of those types for wine making.

Two types of wine grapes that have met with some success in the Midwest — the Marquette and Frontenac varieties — were developed at the University of Minnesota, Shoemaker said.

Marquette grapes are related to Frontenac and Pinot Noir grapes and are becoming the standard bearer for Midwest reds, he said. Frontenac grapes are Franco-American hybrids which have remained fruitful after surviving minus-33-degree temperatures and can be used to make rosé, red and port.

Shoemaker said the Galena Cellars in Geneva stocks a good example of a Frontenac port, while Prairie State Winery in Genoa offers a good Frontenac rosé.

He said red wine is made from the pulp of red grapes fermented with their skins. White wine is made by pressing crushed grapes for their juice, which is fermented with the skins not part of the process.

As such, in Illinois currently white wines tend to be better received than reds, which some find to taste metallic or to be too much like green peppers.

Keeping grapes

Shoemaker said what might contribute to those tastes is that in Illinois’ rich soil, grapes can grow rapidly, meaning a full canopy of leaves improperly filtering the grapes from the amount of sun they need. Since making red wines involves using the skin, this will influence the taste of the finished product more than with whites.

The University of Illinois used to have an enologist (a specialist in making wine), so the St. Charles grapes were sent to Champaign. But the specialist retired three years ago. Since then, Shoemaker has been producing the small batches that are scrutinized by members of the Illinois associations at his home in DeKalb.

“As we work to develop better varieties of grapes and the industry matures, Illinois wines from the state will only get better. Remember, Europeans have been making wines for centuries, while the business here as it is now is only 30 years old,” Shoemaker said.

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