Smile Politely

Hurry to Mackinaw Valley Vineyard Before Grape-Picking Season Ends

I realized that my childhood came full circle watching my critter run around the U-Pick grapevines at Mackinaw Valley Vineyard in Mackinaw, Ill., yesterday. My mother took me on seemingly endless trips each summer to pick fruit for that year’s jellies and jams. Memories of hours spend romping through Willamette Valley strawberry and blackberry fields still color attitudes about what food and wine ought to be. So standing in a long row of beautiful fruit watching my daughter cram grapes fresh off the vine into her mouth seems appropriate. We picked eight pounds of table grapes, and I was pleased to find subtle flavor differences between each. Store-bought varieties taste pretty much the same, and except for arbitrary childhood biases, I see little reason to buy anything but that week’s flier special. Himrod, a white skinned table grape had a honeyed character with a mild texture while the pink skinned Reliance, gave that classic Welch’s pungent foxy, grapey character. The tartness of the black Mars pleased me, and I plan on using this for the bulk of my weekend baking foray, grape pie with crème fraîche.

Of course making pie was not my main reason for trekking to Mackinaw, just a welcome side project. We are lucky to be close to so many new wineries. Wading into new wine experiences is part of the fun of taking trips like these. I brought no preconceptions about their wines, not remembering tasting any previously. The verdict: Paul Hahn makes really good wine.

I will admit to being taken by the surroundings. Their vineyard sits atop one of those beautiful rises in the Lincoln land flat that provides beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. Diane Hahn just spread cacao bean mulch that morning, so a wonderful deep chocolate aroma egged on by morning rains greeted us as we waded through the picturesque gardens. They created another beautiful rural escape perfect for the concerts and weddings hosted there all summer. If you feel the need to work for you drink, on September 28 you should go take part in their first annual grape stomp. Go find out just how sticky ripe grapes really are.

All of the Hahn’s dry wines (not to be confused by the cock-crested big brand from the Golden State) show minerality and a dusty character that I think expresses the vineyard. Sweeter wines, too, have a common flavor thread that I can describe best as grape Nehi. But let me point out that this is (along with my sauerkraut tasting note from my last column) not detrimental. Commonality amongst wines from the same place shows intent and caring. It shows a sense of place. The grapey quality of MVV’s sweeter wines comes forth as an identifying quality, a house style. And quite frankly, fresh style dolce vino ought to be grapey. These two traits intertwine with varietal correctness. The chocolate notes of their Frontenac really come out. Seyval shows its pungent citrus and wax tones. Get out there. This stuff is really good.

Vignoles 2007: I tasted this wine earlier in the summer and really enjoyed it, but after a few more glasses, I forgot to ask what it was. I was so happy to taste this again. The first smell implanted an unforgettably specific memory. Delicious. And yes, atypical for what Vignoles is supposed to taste like but whatever. Ginger gold apple and nutmeg peach compote fills this nose and lead to a honey flavored finish with singing acidity. A bit of sweetness underneath, yes, but the balance provided by the acid makes this refreshing and zingy. This is so good – floral, rich, also light and elegant. It’s a prime example of what a wine with loads of personality can be.

Alexander’s Conquest 2005: I knew things were going to be good after tasting this. The spicy nose with that mineral and a touch of slate brought with a lovely marriage of rose hip and crushed cherries. I thought this was off dry, yet balanced. This is the kind of wine you bring to a dinner and the other guests all comment on how they can’t believe this came from Illinois. A real stunner.

Ruby Red 2005: I actually found this to taste drier than the Alexander, but it finished with a decidedly juicy edge. Big notes of kirsch, licorice root, menthol and plum all fill the alcohol-warmed nose. Another delicious wine perfect for drinking with the types of picnic grill foods you might bring to one of their concerts. I think a slight chill would knock the warm alcohol edge off this for summer drinking, but drink this at normal room temp for a winter warm up.

Two Grandpa’s Grappa: Not a grappa, but a wine produced just as the first part of the grappa process is. This means left over pips, skins, stems, pulp, leaves and all else go into the vat and conjure the very essence of vitis. One of the coolest wines I’ve had in a long time. Starts off just like the distillate with a strong permanent marker/acetone-like edge that hides the gooseberry, salmon berry edge to the decidedly alcoholic nose. Those not faint of heart will be rewarded with a menagerie of roasted pineapple, overripe mango, grape jelly (or Nehi) and creamy flavors. Totally awesome.

I was thinking of ways to cajole you into taking the trip. And while you should go buy maple sirup at Funk’s Grove before they run out for the season, I really don’t think you need an excuse. Celebrate the beginning of school or try to hold onto summer for a few more weeks. Pack some pasta salad, fruit and cheese and get in the car. You’re going to have a good time. Hurry, don’t miss the U-Pick.

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