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Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015 12:01 am

Local wine for local holidays

A display of Danenberger Family Vineyards wines including the 90-point rating Coup de Foudrè.


It’s a big deal for any wine from anywhere in the world to get a 90-point rating from respected wine publications or organizations. For a central Illinois wine to receive a 90-point rating is more than a big deal; it’s extraordinary, almost unheard of.

But Susan Danenberger, wine-maker extraordinaire and the driving force behind Danenberger Family Vineyards near New Berlin, has just done that. Her Coup de Foudrè (translation: a bolt of lightning or love at first sight) red wine has been awarded a gold medal 90-point rating from The Beverage Testing Institute.

Full disclosure: I’ve long been skeptical about Illinois wines. I’ve doubted whether they could ever be regarded as being in the same class as the world’s best, or even excellent to very good wines. That said, I don’t mean I expected them to be venerated in that rarified strata where the snob value of a wine is more important than it’s particulars relative to other wines on the market. I’ve been lucky to have tasted a few of those über-expensive, über-famous wines. But though I enjoyed them, there was always a nagging question in the back of my mind: “Is this wine, which is 20 times or more expensive than a similar, less exalted wine, 20 times or more better? For me, at least, the answer is usually “no”.

But the preponderance of Illinois wines are on the sweet side, primarily (at least in the past) because of the types of grapes grown here, but also because of mass marketability. That’s not necessarily bad, but limits their character and nuance. I’ve had some fairly good Illinois wines, but their price point has been high relative to their quality.

The real issue for me was that I just didn’t think Illinois wines could escape the limitations of their location and soil. I should also say that, while I do have some knowledge of wines and viticulture, I’m far from an expert, so feel free to take what I’m saying with a grain or more of salt.

Historically, there are two belts that encircle the Earth where the climate is most suitable to providing the best grapes for wine-making: one in the Northern Hemisphere (much of Europe, northern California and the American Northwest), and a parallel one in the Southern Hemisphere (New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Chile and Argentina). Neither of which, obviously, is in Illinois.

Then there’s terroir; how wine-growing regions’ soil composition affects the end product. It’s a widely accepted maxim that “stressed vines make the best wine.” In California’s Napa and Sonoma counties, the relatively fertile valleys grow grapes for mass production; the best wine grapes come from higher up, on mountains whose soil is sandy and rocky. Some of France’s best wines come from vines that literally grow in fields of fist-sized rocks.

All of which was going through my head as I drove to Danenberger Family Vineyards amidst miles of rich, black Illinois soil. Danenberger emphasizes that her wines are dry. Was she buying grapes out-of-state? (She wouldn’t be the first Illinois winemaker to do so.) I was about to find out, and it would change my perceptions of Illinois wines’ potential.

Danenberger Family Vineyards is smack dab in the middle of that rich soil. As I drove in, I saw a small area – at most, an acre – of vines, which validated my suspicions that her highly rated wine came from mostly non-Illinois grapes. It was a warm, sunny day, and multiple outdoor seating areas were inviting and beautifully decorated for the holidays. That brought to mind another of my reservations about Illinois wineries: some are clearly more invested in their facility as an event space rather than wine production.

Danenberger came out to greet me. She was stylish and slender, a far cry from other winemakers I’ve known. Still more suspicious. But as soon as we sat down in DFV’s tasting room and Danenberger began talking, I realized my doubts were groundless.

Danenberger began making wine some eight years ago. Initially it was a hobby, something interesting to do after moving back to the centennial farm that has been in her family since her great-great-grandfather, Irish immigrant James Sullivan, settled there in the mid 1800s. But her hobby became an absorbing passion and a full-time occupation, eventually enlisting the help of her husband and two sons.

While Danenberger clearly has fun with viticulture and oenology (grape-growing and wine-making), she’s also seriously committed to producing excellent wine. My questions about soil were answered with an analysis of beneficial minerals and elements already in the soil, what’s lacking and how she amends it for best results. She talked about different pruning methods and how they affect and combat Illinois’ summer humidity. She described experiments with different yeast strains, and when the grapes’ brix (sugar content) is optimal for harvesting. All to ensure that “the fruit tells its story, with its tannins and acids.”

“I start every season with a vision once I taste the fruit, stems and tendrils. Even when I am pruning I am chewing the cuttings and looking for clues. Often, my yeast choices change throughout the growing season as I detect different flavors that I want to enhance or downplay,” she says.

It’s that last sentence that reveals Danenberger’s secret for crafting excellent wines: her palate for blending different varietals to make wines that can be greater than the sum of their parts. Some of those varietals are classics that I didn’t think could be grown here, notably Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. But under Danenberger’s care, they’re doing well. (Incidentally, most of Danenberger’s vines are in a large plot not visible from the winery.) The family also is committed to being “stewards of the land, maintaining and enhancing it along the way by employing sustainable farming practices. We utilize age-old techniques, but embrace a modern, scientific approach.”

In 2011, Danenberger enrolled in the University of California’s wine program, widely considered America’s best. She has one course left to earn a degree, but it’s a measure of UC Davis’ respect for her abilities that they are sponsoring an experimental plot on her farm. All harvesting is done by hand. “The quality of our grapes is the result of our attention to detail throughout the growing season,” says Danenberger.  

Blending varietals to create outstanding wines isn’t new. In America and elsewhere, it’s become popular to label wines to one grape: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, etc. But historically, great wines were blends, concocted by expert winemakers. And even the labeling can be misleading: often it’s only 80 per cent a single varietal.  

I sampled three of DFV’s wines during my visit. The first, PaperMoon, was a white, redolent of freshly harvested hay, a blend of Roussanne, Viognier (Which Danenberger doesn’t grow locally, but comes from a Washington state vineyard owned by her and three of her UC Davis female fellow students), and a couple others. It would have been perfect to serve with the cheese fondue I recently wrote about.

Next came Desagacé Scarlet. It’s food friendly (as were all DFV wines I tried) and has spicy notes. I paired it with hot-smoked trout later that evening; it was an ideal counterpoint to the fish.

Last, but certainly not least, was the Coup de Fourdrè. It was rich, but not heavy, with a delightful mushroom aroma that complemented our steak dinner.

I’m anticipating trying more of DFV’s wines in the near future. They’re not bargain-basement cheap, neither are they crazy expensive.

To find restaurants and wine shops that carry DFV wines or, even better, how and when to visit the winery, go to their website: http://danenbergerfamilyvineyards.com.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.


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