A few years ago, I was introduced to ISC sparkling wines at an industry tasting event in Chicago and I was blown away. “This is from Illinois?” I said. Yes, indeed!
ISC stands for Illinois Sparkling Company and you can understand why they branded it ISC. No one wants to see the word “Illinois” on a bottle of wine, and according to Mark Wenzel, winemaker and owner of August Hill Winery and ISC, that is his number-one challenge.
I recently went down to Utica, Illinois to satisfy my curiosity about not only ISC but August Hill wines (which I had never tasted). The entire experience was fascinating and delicious and fun and if you live in the region, it is a wonderful little road trip. Ready to open your mind to Illinois wines? Come on!
A Brief History of August Hill Winery & ISC
August Hill is named after founder Mark Wenzel’s grandfather, August (Augie) Engelhaupt, a farmer, and the hill on which the four-acre vineyard is located. After founding August Hill Winery in 2002, Mark focused on the August Hill brand wines, which include a range of dry and sweet still wines as well as some fortified fruit wines.
How in the world does a guy in the middle of Midwest farmland decide to start growing grapes and make wines? All it took was a few articles that Mark read about wine grapes being grown in Illinois, and his curiosity took over. After a lot of research and self-education through mentors, conferences, books and the internet, Mark planted his vineyard with a mix of French-hybrid grapes that are designed to thrive in the central Illinois climate. He now grows La Crescent, Marquette, Frontenac, Frontenac Gris and Frontenac Blanc, all used exclusively in the ISC sparkling wines. He makes about 1,000 cases of ISC sparklers a year and has an eye toward growing his distribution outside of Illinois next year. For the August Hill wines, Mark purchases and vinifies grapes from vineyards in Illinois and other Midwest states as well as states in the West and East.
The first vintage of ISC wines was 2008 and they’ve received recognition at wine competitions throughout the Midwest, as well as high praise from sommeliers. ISC wines can be found in Chicago at retailers like Binny’s, In Fine Spirits, The Noble Grape, CH Distillery, All Together Now, and Pops for Champagne and restaurants like Daisies and Longman & Eagle in Logan Square, Galit in Lincoln Park, and Wherewithall in Avondale. Check out ISC’s wine finder here to find ISC wines at more locations near your zip code.
The Big Take-Away: Skilled winemakers can make excellent wines with Illinois fruit. Yes, it is true! Now, I’ve had Illinois wines before that were not delicious (to me). But I salute anyone who grows grapes and makes wine in Illinois, because it is not easy. It takes time for fruit to develop. It takes time to learn, to experiment, to figure out the answers to a million decisions in the grape-growing and wine-making processes. I mean, hey – Napa didn’t happen overnight. If climate change keeps happening, who knows – could the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA become the next Napa Valley?
Mark Wenzel said his biggest overall challenge is overcoming the skepticism that people have about Illinois wines. But I’d wager that there was just as much skepticism at one point about New York’s Finger Lakes region established in 1982, which is now turning out wines that routinely get high scores and rave reviews. The only way to overcome your own skepticism is to try these wines and spread the word!
My Second Big Take-Away: These crazy hybrid grape varieties work. While Mark does use some familiar international varieties like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in some of his August Hill wines, his expertise lies in making beautiful, balanced wines with these cold-hardy hybrids, many of them developed at the University of Minnesota. Chardonel? Yeah, laugh all you want, until you taste it. It’s delicious. Okay, let’s taste!
Tasting the ISC Sparklers
Pét Nat: This rosy-hued sparkler is 100% Chambourcin (that’s the grape) and it is as dry as the Sahara, giving off sexy whiffs of watermelon Jolly Rancher and slightly underripe strawberries with a creamy texture. Pet Nats are all the rage with the cool kids and this one fits in well. The second fermentation on Pet Eats happens in the bottle, but the bottles are not disgorged, as Champagne is, to remove that blob of spent yeast. They always have a crown cap (like you see on soda or beer bottles) and are roughly half as fizzy as Champagne and other more traditional sparklers. This is a fun, fizzy discovery! SRP: $25
Ensemble Extra Brut: Now come on! This is heavenly! An explosion of peach, green apple and lime curd unfurls on the palate with lively bubbles. It’s made from Frontenac Gris and LaCrosse grapes and is a collab with Chicagos’ Pops for Champagne, which is the only place you can get this outside of the August Hill Tasting Room. It’s perfectly balanced and perfectly unique. SRP: $58.
2017 Brut: ISC’s signature sparkler, this wine is light, bright, crisp and crunchy with green apple and nice fizz! Would complement any cheese, potato chips, fried foods or oysters. SRP: $20
Brut Ombré Rosé: Well, hello, beautiful! I loved this wine! Like the Pet Nat, it is 100% Chambourcin, but not quite as bone-dry. It is dripping with green apple, raspberry and watermelon flavors and its zesty acidity makes your mouth water. (I think this is when we dipped into the tub of Chuck’s Gourmet Cheese with breadsticks – soooo good.) SRP: $20
2016 Sec: Moving up just a bit on the sweetness scale, the Sec has 25 grams per liter of residual sugar, but is far from cloyingly sweet. It’s got honey bouncing off the nose with a bit of lemon/orange personality, and it would be purrrrfect with spicy Thai, a poke bowl, sushi or an apple dessert. Made from a blend of La Crescent and Frontenac Gris. SRP: $32
Tasting the August Hill Wines
Chardonel 2018 Smells like Chardonnay! You totally get the ripe apple, the stone fruit, a bit of vanilla from some oak aging. On the palate, it’s very soft, very delicate – it’s no oak-bomb. It’s actually kind of complex – I even got a bit of white pepper on the back-end of it. SRP $19.99
Seyval Blanc 2019: Hold the phone, this white wine is FUN! The nose was kind of muted, but the first sip unleashes a geyser of tropical fruits like pineapple and mango. It’s like a sunny day in a glass. It is kind of like Pinot Grigio had a baby with Chenin Blanc. SRP $17.99
Chambourcin Rosé 2019: Very light and racy, with zippy acidity! This is 100 percent Chambourcin and would be a great porch pounder on a hot summer day. Made fromSRP $16.99
Berlyn Here we have a red blend of Frontenac and Chambourcin that instantly inspires a boozy chocolate-covered cherry. (You know, those cordial cherries with syrup inside?) There’s also some nice pastry crust going on, and oh – hello, ripe strawberry and mocha. This is August Hill’s top seller and I can see why. It was a little on the sweet side for me, personally, but with a Home Run Inn sausage pizza, I bet it’d be really nice. SRP: $17.99.
Cabernet Franc 2017 With muscley tannins, this big red is oozing with cherry, cedar and spice. (This was my friend Mona’s favorite wine of the entire tasting). SRP: $39.99
Chambourcin NV Now here’s a beauty – kind of like pinot noir and sangiovese had a baby. It’s light-bodied, but has definite structure to it. I really like this one. SRP: $19.99.
Ginocchio XIII NV Oh, come to mama! On first sniff, I said, “This smells expensive.” And you know what? It also tastes expensive. By that, I mean, it reminded me of some high-priced wines I’ve loved from California and Italy. It’s a blend of Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Frontenac and it’s only $22.99. This was my favorite red from August Hill.
But wait! Augie’s Blackberry was our final taste and don’t you knock this sweet, fortified blackberry wine til you try it. It is gorgeous. Totally busting loose with blackberries and the perfect sweetness level. With some dark chocolate from local chocolatier Cocoa Blue Chocolates, it was the perfect final sip. I bought a bottle to take to Ladies Wine Night and everyone went crazy for it .
Plan Your August Hill Experience!
These days, we’re all seeking local adventures and August Hill Winery is a good one. They have a large tasting room, and a lovely patio out back, where I found two girlfriends, Sue and Diane from Indiana enjoying a tasting.
Check August Hill’s events page to plan your visit. They offer lunch in the Tasting Room on certain days and “Wine on the Hill” picnic-style events with live music on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Plus, the main street in Utica is currently closed to cars so local restaurants have room for outdoor tables and plenty of social distancing.
It is about a two-hour drive from Chicago, and Starved Rock State Park is just a few minutes away. There are several local motels and lodges that would make for a nice overnight stay. The park was closed the day we went because of damage from that Aug. 10 storm, so check online for updates.
I want to thank the entire August Hill Winery team for a magnificent experience. Danna and Jessie in the tasting room were so welcoming and friendly – they made the tasting experience a delight! And Susanne, who answered so many questions and of course, Mark, the owner and winemaker, who was so generous with his time.
What are you waiting for? Jump in your car and hit the road to discover these wines – or simply head to your local wine shop and bring a bottle or two home. Let me know what you think!