February 23, 2017

Wine Makers Love Southern Illinois Grape Growers

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The best winemakers know that great wine is made in the vineyard.   The quality of grapes being grown in Illinois is a part of the reason that the quality of Illinois wine is increasing.  Recently,  Midwest Wine Press visited grape growers in Southern Illinois whose grapes are being made into award-winning wines by Northern Illinois wineries.

Heimann Vineyards, Dix, Illinois: Ryan Heimann and Dan Duncan

Ryan Heimann and his partner Dan Duncan grow all French American hybrids and Cabernet Franc on eight acres just north of Mt.Vernon, Illinois.  Vineyards of this size are common in Illinois,  partially because much vineyard labor is carefully done by hand.  Spraying and mowing at Heimann Vineyards is done with a tractor,  but pruning, leaf thinning, and harvesting are all done by hand.  (Publisher’s note:  That hand harvested, hand-made Midwest wines are available for less than $20 a bottle is one of the great values in the wine world.)

A well-managed but relatively small Southern Illinois vineyard, like Heimann Vineyards, can produce a lot of grapes.   For example, Chambourcin yields at Heimann are between 6.5 to 7.5 tons per acre.   Chambourcin grows vigorously in Southern Illinois so it’s an advantage that Heimann’s soil is less fertile than the dark earth 25 miles west.   Chambourcin losses from April freezes were minor with only a 5% loss, according to Heimann.

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Seyval Blanc occupies the most acreage at Heimann Vineyards with some Seyval vines as old as 13 years.   Seyval buds broke first this year and had some April freeze damage, but the vines have since repaired most of frost damage themselves.   Heimann applies a liquid fertilizer that includes calcium nitrate and nitrogen at a pound an acre to help vines that have been frost damaged.

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As a result of the volatile spring weather, Heimann plans to change some of his pruning practices.   In the future, he will not do a final pruning until frost danger has completely passed.   He will continue to rough prune in January and February,  but he will leave more buds and shoots until later in the spring, just in case.  “We’re shoot thinning and cluster thinning three to four times a year anyway so we can always take some fruit off later,” he said.

Heimann reduced number of wineries for which he supplies grapes from 11 last year to 8 this year.   With fewer clients, he can deliver a sizeable quantity of grapes to Illinois wineries such as Kickapoo Creek, Blue Sky and Fox Valley Winery in northern Oswego, IL.   Fox Valley Winery owner Richard Faltz said he values his relationship with Heimann.  “Ryan is a great grower; he’s educated in his craft and he’s willing to be a partner in the wine making process.  I can’t make good wine from bad grapes, so the grower has to be part of the team,” Faltz said.

Faltz believes grape growers are so important that he’s adopting the practice of putting the name of the vineyard on his single vineyard varietal wines.   Starting this year,  Fox Valley will also provide consumers with information about the grapes from which the wine is made,  including the growing conditions for each vintage, using a QR code on the label.

Heimann increased the prices of his grapes by $50 a ton this year due to increased diesel costs.  “Between spraying and mowing, we take at least 20 tractor trips across the vineyard each year and it adds up. Despite increased costs, good quality growers should be able to make  money in this business,”  Heimann says.  He plans to plant another five acres of Seyval or Cab Franc over the next several years and invest in mechanical harvesting equipment.

Two Oaks Vineyards Benton, Illinois:  John and Barb Harp

Two Oaks Vineyard won the Vineyard of the Year Award 2012 from the Illinois Grape Growers Association.   Like all successful grape growers,  owners John and Barb Harp are sticklers for details.  Meticulous records of degree days and exact spraying schedules are practices that translate into the high quality fruit demanded by Illinois winemakers.

Rick Mamoser, wine maker at Prairie State Winery in Genoa, won Best of Show at the Illinois Wine Competition in both ’10 and ’11 using Cabernet Franc from Two Oaks.  Mamoser, who currently produces over 13,000 gallons per year,  said,  “The wines I am most proud of came from Two Oaks grapes.” Mamoser also gets Chambourcin and Seyval from Two Oaks and will release a Norton made from Two Oaks grapes.

Both Two Oaks and Heimann Vineyards are at the northern limits of where Cab Franc can be grown in Illinois.  During the second year Two Oak’s Cab Franc vines were in the ground, vineyard temperatures dropped to -5F.  But Barb Harp said the vines survived and came back strong.   Another challenge with Cab Franc can be uneven ripening.   “Therefore,”  Barb said, “grape testing should be done on whole clusters as opposed to just single berries.”

Harp also recommends that instead of pruning Cab Franc, it’s better to tuck the new shoots behind the vertical shoot position trellis wires.  “We like Cab Franc to have more leaves; that means more photosynthesis and better flavors in the grapes.”   In a wetter vineyard like Two Oaks, Harp has had success with 3309 root stock.

Two Oaks can get 4-6 tons an acre of quality fruit from their Cab Franc vines.  Vinifera varietals like Cab Franc can sell for as much as $1,500 per ton, whereas top quality hybrid grapes sell for between $700 and $1,000 a ton in Illinois.

Two Oaks’ 12 acre vineyard is on the larger side for Illinois.  Like most Illinois vineyards, Two Oaks does most pruning and harvesting by hand.  Last year, Two Oaks experimented with limited machine harvesting.  Harp said that the harvesting machine worked well on a high wire trellis but not for the vertical shoot positioning trellis.  The shaking of the harvesting machine broke some of the VSP poles, so Two Oaks will gradually shift to sturdier poles that are meant to tolerate machine harvesting.

Starting in August, the Harp’s will begin daily grape testing and daily grape chemistry reports to wineries.  “We work with the winemaker so we both know where the fruit should be in terms of maturity and taste,”  Barb said.  “Some people say that we should not be able to grow grapes like we do here, but the quality speaks for itself.  We promote Illinois wine by growing the best grapes possible.”

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About Mark Ganchiff

Mark Ganchiff is the publisher of Midwest Wine Press, the leading source of news on the growing wine industry in the central United States. Mark has been a wine judge at the 2012 and 2014 INDY International Wine Competition, the 2014 Cold Climate Wine Competition, the 2013 Mid-American Wine Competition, the 2012 Illinois State Fair Wine Competition and the 2013 Michigan Wine Competition. He also enjoys speaking at wine events including the Cold Climate Wine Conference, the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association Annual Meeting, the Midwest Grape and Wine Conference and the Wisconsin Fruit and Vegetable Conference. Mark’s articles about regional wine have appeared in Vineyard & Winery Management, WineMaker and several regional magazines.
Mark is a Level One Sommelier in the Court of Master Sommeliers. He lives in Louisville, but also has a residence in Chicago.