Taking to the wine trail in southern Illinois.

It's hard to believe that just three-and-a-half hours away is an award-winning wine region in southern Illinois -- yes, I said southern Illinois.

Recently, I visited Winghill Vineyards in Cobden, stopped by Von Jakob Vineyards in Pomona, and attended the Spring Wine Festival at Alto Vineyards in Alto Pass. All three are in the picturesque rolling green hills of Shawnee National Forest, making this area a perfect region for growing grapes, as grapevines flourish in the well-drained soil of hillside sites.

My first sip was at Winghill, where I sampled three of its current releases. I started with the Chardonel Reserve 2001, a lightly oaked, dry white wine. It had soft butter tones with slight aromas of honeysuckle and citrus and a nice crisp finish. Next was the Whipporwill White 2000, with its sweet, fruit-forward taste and fresh bouquet of wildflowers and melon. This one was definitely a summer wine for those unbearably hot days that call for something fresh. By far the most interesting wine I sampled here was the Hallsberry Blue, a wine made entirely from blueberries. The scent was fruity and had a hint of allspice and cinnamon, which misled me to expect a rich, sweet wine. But that was not the case at all. At first sip, I was shocked to taste an off-dry, velvety, complex wine that would be perfect to begin a meal.

My next destination was Von Jakob, the first winery in Illinois to grow and sell a Cabernet Sauvignon. To give you an idea at how successful it has been, it takes only two weeks to sell out every year it is released. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to sample Von Jakob's Cabernet, but the vineyard had other wines to try. The Hillside White is a white wine with hints of grapefruit and lime zest. My next taste was of the American Chambourcin, which was by far my favorite of the wines I sampled at this vineyard. This medium-bodied red had a full bouquet of blackberries, plums, and black cherries, along with soft tannins and a velvety smooth feel.

Finally, I headed to the Spring Wine Festival in Alto Pass, where two areas were set up for sampling Alto's recent vintages. I sampled a handful of wines and was pleasantly surprised by every one of them. The most impressive was the late-harvest Reserve Gold, which is this vineyard's version of an ice wine. It was a sweet, luscious dessert wine with depth and character that could stand up against any dessert wine from any region in the world. Another interesting and delicious wine was the Traminette, which is a hybrid of the Gewurztraminer grape. This wine had a soft texture and the big, juicy fruit flavors of honeydew and peach.

The festival's second area sold by-the-glass pours of select wines for $5 ($3 refills), including a souvenir glass emblazoned with the vineyard logo and a full glass of estate wine. Along with the many wines to sample on the property was a quaint food tent where a local barbecue restaurant sold a scaled-down version of its menu. After spending a good amount of time in the tasting tent, I bought a glass of Rosso Classico and a plate of barbecue and sat down on the lawn to listen to a bluegrass band.

Along with other wineries in the area (Owl Creek, Pomona, Pheasant Hollow, Orlandini Vineyards, among others), there are many activities to fill up a long weekend. Just north of most of the wineries and right inside Giant City State Park is the town of Makanda's Artisan Boardwalk, a classic row of buildings housing art galleries, glass shops, jewelers, and an ice cream parlor and café. The park's beautiful rock formations are perfect for climbing, rappelling, or just hiking around. Little Grand Canyon, just north of Pomona Winery and Von Jakob Vineyards, is filled with large canyons, streaming waterfalls, and shimmering spring-fed pools.

In keeping with the wine-filled weekend, the best way to finish off a day of wine tasting is a dinner at Tom's Place in Desoto. This annual Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner is a rustic private-booth-filled restaurant with a stunning wine list and surprising menu. The wine list is reasonably priced and packed with boutique labels as well as the big boys in the wine world. Chef Lasse Sorenson's menu reflects his years of training in Europe combined with his own creative flair with such offerings as rack of lamb with Dijon aioli and white truffle oil and grilled veal chop in cognac tomato crème reduction.

What a wonderful trip. I remember sitting at the festival with my wine and barbecue, looking out over the vines and the vibrant green hills of Shawnee National Forest. It was easy to forget where I was. I never thought of this area as being a part of Illinois. I've always thought of it as its own region, unclaimed by any state in the Midwest. n

For more information on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, check out ShawneeWineTrail.com.

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