The Grape Industry and Wine Making in Illinois

June 5, 2003
June 5, 2003

URBANA-Illinois is not considered a leading state in wine production. But University of Illinois researchers Bob Skirvin and his team ask the question why not? Skirvin’s recently completed research on grape growth in Illinois showed that Illinois has all the resources to be a successful wine producing and grape-growing state.

In 1900, Illinois was responsible for one quarter of all domestically-produced wine in the U.S. By 1990 only five wineries remained. Recent years have seen this industry grow dramatically and today there are 35 wineries in Illinois as listed by the Illinois Grape and Wine Resources Council website.

“We researched different varieties of grapes in three parts of the state to see how climate affected their growth and production,” said Skirvin, a University of Illinois professor of horticulture.

Skirvin’s research examined 26 different varities of grapes, of which most were wine grapes with a few seedless grapes used in juice production. Three test sites were chosen in different parts of the state (northern at St. Charles, central at Urbana, and southern at Dixon Springs) to judge the growth of each variety in different climates and conditions.

“It’s a great value-added crop,” said Stephen Menke, a University of Illinois enologist (wine specialist). “People are pleased with the profits from wine production. It’s good for the area’s tourism and local economy as well.”

Menke estimates Illinois to have about 800 acres of land in vineyards and the numbers are increasing.

Grapes are originally from the Middle East, Skirvin said, and are not used to climates (particularly the cold winters) and conditions found in America. These varieties are American hybrids that have a stronger resistance to cold winters, which can kill the plants. The hybrids also have a stronger resistance to pests and diseases.

“The varieties we tested did not require a long growing season,” Skirvin said. “Generally grapes grown in southern Illinois do better than those in the northern part because of the warmer climate and longer growing season.”

During the first three harvest seasons, the goal was to maximize yields. Some grape strains were very successful and productive bearing extremely high yields while some had limited growth and production.

Skirvin said he was pleased with the project and its results. Southern Illinois is the area of Illinois he sees being most affected by the results.

“Southern Illinois has a lot of the key conditions to be successful in this market,” Skirvin said. “It has seen some dramatic growth in this industry already. However the industry is moving north into central and northern Illinois.”

For more information and project reports visit Skirvin’s website, http://w3.aces.uiuc.edu/NRES/faculty/Skirvin/cfar

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