The Basics of Great Craft Wines & Beers

Not sure what all of those big booze terms mean? Study up, and explore the basic terminology and tools that can help you to enjoy a locally produced drink.


Ialts, tannins, French oak barrels – Today’s beverage menus feature so many terms and options, how’s a consumer to choose? Here, we learn a few basics from local vintners and brewers.

Wines: Cold-Weather Varietals

Before Prohibition, Illinois was the fourth-largest wine producer in the nation, thanks to our French ancestors and their knowledge of grapevines.

After 1920, however, the industry mostly died out. In the 1990s, the Illinois Department of Agriculture convinced some local farmers to try their hand at growing new cold-hardy grape varietals developed by the University of Minnesota in the 1970s and ‘80s. These vines were a hybrid of local cold-hardy and traditional French varietals, which is why we’re less familiar with a local St. Croix grape than, say, a California chardonnay.

Today, more than 450 vineyards flourish throughout Illinois, according to the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association.

“Basically, they’re hybrid grapes, as opposed to the pure varietal that everyone is used to,” explains Jared Spahn, co-owner of Rocky Waters Vineyard & Winery, in Hanover, Ill. “Merlot, cabernet, pinot, riesling – we can’t call our wines by these names, even though the grapes have some of those varieties in them.”

At Rocky Waters, red wines start with hybrid Marechal Foch grapes. “The two red wines that I have, if you were comparing, would be bolder than a Pinot but less bold than a merlot,” says Spahn. Other common red varietals grown around Illinois include Frontenac, Marquette and St. Croix.

Spahn’s white varietals are made from St. Pepin and LaCrosse grapes, sister plants that convey a slightly fruity aftertaste. Other common white varietals include LaCrescent, Prairie Star and Seyval Blanc.

Cold-weather vines share many similarities with their French ancestors, but are lower in tannins, the naturally occurring preservative in wine that’s derived from crushed skin and seeds.
“Tannin is a bitter substance and will make your mouth dry,” says Spahn.

As a result, cold-weather grapes tend to be more sweet than puckering. A “dry” wine contains about 0.5 percent sugar or less, while an “off-dry” or “semi-dry” contains about 2.5 percent. “Sweet” wines are closer to 4 percent.

By carefully balancing sugar and tannins, Spahn can mimic a number of familiar wines. His White Tail, for example, is sweet like a riesling, but his Prairie Gold is dry like a pinot grigio. His Twisted Oak, on the other hand, tastes like a chardonnay.

“I’ve got wines that taste a good amount like riesling, because the grape was bred with a riesling,” says Spahn. “I can get something very sweet at 4.25 percent sugar, whereas with straight riesling, it would be too bitter, because the tannins mask the sugar.”

Other kinds of tweaking can help a winemaker to mimic popular styles. Rocky Waters’ Tower Red, for example, is aged in a French oak cask, producing a flavor that’s bolder than an un-oaked pinot but less bold than a merlot. The Homestead Red, on the other hand, is aged in more strongly flavored American Oak, giving it a flavor that’s bolder than a merlot, but less bold than a cabernet.

Wines: A Taste of Fruit

Before scientists developed cold-weather wine grapes, Midwestern winemakers simply fermented ripening fruits to make wine. Today, they still make wine from just about anything, including peaches, berries, rhubarb, cherries, cranberries and pomegranates.

Galena Cellars Vineyard & Winery, in Galena, not only grows many cold-hardy grapes, but also produces about 10 fruit wines in its lineup of nearly 40 wines. Co-owner and master winemaker Chris Lawlor crafts everything from mimosa – a combination of fresh orange juice and carbonated white wine – to a sparkling cranberry.

“It’s a complement to Thanksgiving,” she says. “It tastes like fresh cranberry juice, with some sparkle.”

Fruits are imported from top growing regions, local when possible: cherries from Door County, Wis., apples from Wisconsin, raspberries from Oregon. Each bottle is sweetened with fresh juice or fructose, to balance natural acidity and recreate the actual fruit taste.

“Customers will go, ‘Oh my goodness, this peach wine tastes just like a fresh peach!” says Lawlor.
While a strawberry wine might fall more on the semi-dry side, fruit wines are mostly sweet, especially at Galena Cellars. For this reason, they’re often served after a meal.

“Today, if you’re serving a big meal, no one is ready for a great big dessert,” says Lawlor. “We’re suggesting that, instead, it could be a liquid dessert. A good fruit wine may be all you need to finish a meal.”

Fruit wines also pair well with chocolate and other desserts. The Galena Cellars raspberry framboise, for example, is styled like a port wine, but has an intense raspberry flavor.

Fruit wines are especially popular with beginning wine-drinkers, but there’s no reason an experienced drinker can’t enjoy these unique blends in the proper setting.

“Pair them up nicely with dinner,” suggests Lawlor. “Japanese food, for example, has always been paired with plum wines, to help cut the spiciness.”

Wines: How to Serve

Whether serving a fruit or grape wine, glassware matters. But how do you know what glass is appropriate for a particular wine?

“You need a set of dishwasher-safe light glasses,” explains Lawlor. “You don’t want a glass that you have to fill to the top to enjoy, because you need to have room to swirl it and release the aroma and bouquet.”

At Galena Cellars, Lawlor serves wines with a riedl glass, the traditional stemmed wine vessel. Handling the glass by the stem prevents warm hands from raising the temperature of the wine, however, in the case of a port, a little hand-warmth can help to release aromas. When filling the glass, leave it about half empty, so you can swirl the wine and release flavors.

“The idea is that while you drink, you constantly swirl,” she says. “You’ll find that the taste changes as you do this, too – that’s what separates fine and cheap wines. A well-made wine will open up and improve, while a cheap wine will fall apart by the time you’re finished.”

In general, wines don’t need to be decanted, but in the case of older dry wines, the process helps with settlement and flavor release. Lawlor suggests decanting wines about an hour or so before serving, and either opening the bottle to aerate, or pouring wine into an appropriate decanter. And don’t over-chill or ice wine.

“I find that our port fruit wines can be served at room temperature, but most people like them chilled,” says Lawlor. “If wine is ice-cold, you dull the flavor. Personally, I don’t like room-temperature beer, but I don’t like ice-cold beer, either. Wine is the same way.”

Wines: Pairing With Food

Matching food and wine is an art that involves complementary aromas, but also personal preference.

“Make sure flavors aren’t fighting each other,” advises Joumana Foster, social media and marketing manager for Acquaviva Winery, Maple Park. “For instance, red wines are high in tannins. It’s what preserves wine and makes that puckering taste in the back of your mouth. Definitely don’t pair that with lighter dishes.”

Acquaviva’s Patino is similar to a Beaujolais or Pinot Noir, and matches well with a pizza, light pasta or salad, says Foster. It doesn’t go as well with steak or a heavy meat lasagna. Rather, with a steak, the Frontenac or Don Guisseppe are more appropriate, because of their rich oak and roasted cherry flavors.

On the white side, the Prairie Star is much like a pinot grigio, while the Donna Mia may be a good substitute for someone who doesn’t enjoy red wines. Both are compatible with chicken and fish.

Sometimes it’s OK to break the rules when pairing wine and food. Try matching a sweet wine with foie gras, or a port wine with rough, aged cheeses, such as bleu and Manchego. Be open-minded and adventurous.

“And try chocolates, like fudge that has peppered chili with it, with a port,” says Foster. “To some people, it’s very pleasant, and some people don’t like it. You have to go with what you like.”

Wines: Vintage Dates

Every bottle of wine carries a vintage date on it. That date is an indicator of when the grapes were harvested, and to some drinkers, it’s also a signal of the wine’s quality.

“People might say, ‘This year was better than that year,’” explains Foster. “Honestly, it depends on the region you’re talking about. You could have a drought in California, but lots of rain here. If it’s a good year for Beaujolais, that means they had a good year in France.”

Foster’s own home wine cellar has bottles as old as 1998 and 2001, and she’s saving them for a special occasion. But older isn’t always better.

“You want some wines to stay on the shelf longer,” she says. “Others are meant to be drunk within about two years of production.”

At Acquaviva, wines such as the Frontenac, the Illinois equivalent of a zinfandel, can last for years. On the other hand, the Patino red (a Beaujolais style), the Briana, and the Briana Bello are best consumed sooner.

For wine lovers in doubt, Foster recommends using a smartphone app that scans a wine bottle and displays information about when the wine is best purchased and consumed.

Beer: Picking a Craft Brew

Craft beers come in all kinds of flavors and wacky names. Exploring is half the fun, but it may also be overwhelming. How, then, do you choose something without upsetting your tastebuds?

“Go with what you know,” suggests Janet Westberg, general manager at the Village Vintner Winery & Brewery in Algonquin. “If you like Blue Moon, then ask the bartender what’s like it. You can usually read the menu, too, and it’ll say things like ‘orange taste’ or ‘light beer’ – the same things you might enjoy about a Blue Moon.”

Village Vintner crafts 11 brews, from the extra-light Pilsboy Pilsner (think Budweiser) to the dark Belgium Bourbon-Barrel aged Stout (think Guinness). One of the most popular, the Vanilla Cream Ale, is a sweet beer, light and more palatable to newcomers.

For drinkers in doubt, Westberg suggests checking the beer’s IBU, or bitterness, rating. An international unit of beer flavor, it signals overall taste. A light American lager, for example, may rate in single or double digits, while Village Vintner’s Hoprocket IPA is above 700 IBU.
Westberg recommends starting with a light beer, and working toward something darker.

“If you’re not a big beer drinker, always go for fewer IBUs,” she says. “An unfiltered wheat beer, for example, stay away from that, if you’re not a big beer drinker. It’s very heavy, like bread. Those who don’t like it don’t like that heavy, yeasty flavor.”

Beer & Wine: Survive a Tasting

By law, Illinois only allows two samples of liquor per person at a time. But wine and beer tastings are a different matter. At Village Vintner, for example, the tasting bar holds 25 seats, and customers can sample seven wines for $7. They could also choose a four-beer paddle sampler.

During tastings, Westberg enjoys stretching customers’ palates, pairing up wines and beers that aren’t exactly the same. With Village Vintner’s beers, Westberg starts with a heavy stout, and finishes with the hops-rich India Pale Ale. Why? “It’s hard to drink anything else and not taste the hops from the Hoprocket,” she says.

With the seven-wine sample, however, she usually matches up two whites, three reds, one fruit and a dessert wine.

“We always go with our driest wine first,” she explains. “It sends your tastebuds into a shock, and it brings out a flavor in the other wines. It’s the same with beer. You smell it first, because that opens up your tastebuds. If you smell orange, you’re going to taste it a lot more. It’s wired into your brain to think like that.”

Don’t simply chug – instead, slurp and swish the wine or beer, so that it hits every point on the tongue. Between drinks, rinse out the flavor with a swig of water, or perhaps some bread, crackers or cheese.

Beer: The Perfect Glass

Beer has few hard-and-fast rules, but when it comes to serving, a few tricks can improve the flavor. Craft brewers, including Emmett’s Tavern & Brewing Co., with locations in West Dundee, Palatine and Downers Grove, pay special attention to a beer’s traditional serving methods.

“Small breweries like us pay homage by serving in traditional glasses,” says Andy Burns, president of Emmett’s. “The shape can help to convey the aroma, channel it up to the nose.”

Emmett’s uses six kinds of glasses, enough for its five standard selections and two seasonal selections. But for drinkers at home, Burns suggests two essential vessels: a tall, trumpet-shaped pilsner glass and a standard English-style pint glass, with a slightly bubbled lip.
“We size them around 20 oz., because a 20 oz. glass will hold a true pint: 16 oz. with a two-finger head,” says Burns.

There’s a right and wrong way to pour a beer.

“The pouring of beer should naturally provide a head,” says Burns. “When you don’t see head, it indicates there’s a problem. Maybe the glass wasn’t cleaned, or there’s leftover detergent. Other times, you might have residual oils or fats. Those things will kill head on a beer.”

Beer: Matching A Meal

While you seldom go wrong pairing beer and food, there are ways to guarantee a winning combination. It starts with complementary flavors.

“To really score a home run, we like to look for flavor hooks that complement each other, or that cleanse the palate,” says Burns, of Emmett’s Tavern. “The darker beers – stouts, porters – lend themselves to desserts, by adding bitterness.” Try pairing stouts with chocolate or cheesecake.

The perfect match also requires an understanding of malt or hops strength in a given beer. Malts create a bread-like taste, and often leave a caramel or smoky aftertaste. Emmett’s malty Red Ale is a key ingredient in its house barbecue sauce.

“Tie in a malt with food,” says Burns. “It will add a source of sweetness and soften the meat.”
A more hops-strong beer, however, adds spice – often bitterness and extra aroma, with a hint of citrus.

“India Pale Ale, or any pale ale, tends to be a big beer with firm citrus character,” says Burns. “These beers are a great palate cleanser, so pair them with a dish that’s fatty or cheesy.”

Be Adventurous

Experts on wine and beer agree there are few hard-and-fast rules, though some drinks are more forgiving than others. Either way, a little knowledge goes a long way toward enjoying the best our region has to offer, and also makes the adventure a little more fun.