The Shawnee Hills Wine Trail is located in southern Illinois, in the Shawnee Hills. The name comes from the Shawnee Hills Indians who lived in this area during the early 1800s. Today, there are about 20 wineries within the Shawnee Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA). Eleven of them are included in the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail.
After visiting wine regions across four continents, we have to say we were a bit skeptical about what we were about to taste and explore in our home state of Illinois.
Shawnee Hills Wine Trail
What Makes the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail Worth Visiting?
Combining the beautiful rolling hills of the Shawnee National Forest and excellent wine makes visiting the area a no-brainer. The loveliness along the trail can be enjoyed all year round.
We visited during the late fall when it was very cold and cloudy but still enjoyed ourselves immensely. We made sure to balance our time up between the natural beauty of the Shawnee National Forest and the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail.
The shoulder seasons are a great time to visit the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail as some of these wineries may have up to a thousand visitors per day during the summer. This means fewer crowds, lower room rates, and more intimate experiences.
Shawnee Hills Wines | Quick Overview
We suspect that the quality of the grapes and wines stems from the pride and passion we saw on display as we toured the wineries. The four elements of making great wine include:
- The Grapes
- White: Traminette, Vignoles (Vin-yole), Chardonel, Seyval
- Red: Chambourcin (Sham-boor-sin), Norton, Cabernet Franc
- The Terroir: Loose and thin soil sitting mainly on limestone that extends from the Ohio to Mississippi rivers.
- The Climate: A unique meso-climate that benefits from warmer winter temperatures and higher elevations, the result is a longer growing season.
- The Winemaking process: The Shawnee Hills AVA is acknowledged in the wine industry as having a unique growing process and high-quality grapes.
If you’re looking to thoroughly explore the Shawnee Forest then you may consider purchasing:
Visiting the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail
The Shawnee Hills AVA covers a huge chunk of land, about 2,000 square miles. On the other hand, the wine trail only covers about 40-miles. The best way to enjoy the trail comfortably and safely is to book at least two nights in a winery that provides accommodations.
We stayed at Blue Sky Vineyard, which provides overnight guests with a truly hidden gem. Two spacious suites are located just above the winery’s tasting room. Our suite, the Tuscany Romance Suite, includes a balcony that overlooks the wine bar and an additional balcony overlooking the vineyards and Shawnee Hills.
The Tuscany Romance Suite also offers a small kitchenette with a coffee pot, sink, microwave, and refrigerator. A European-style breakfast comes with each stay.
However, guests may decide to choose a bottle of their signature wines in place of breakfast. The two suites get booked extremely quickly. In cases where there is no availability, consider staying in nearby Carbondale.
What Are the Best Wineries on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail to Visit?
There are 11 wineries open for wine tastings along the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail. Even though they’re spread out over a 40-mile distance, it is possible to visit all of them throughout a couple of days. However, if you’re short on time and only have the opportunity to visit a few, here are our picks for the best wineries on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail:
- Blue Sky Vineyard.
- Alto Vineyard.
- Owl Creek Vineyard.
If you only have time for one tasting room to visit you should make it the Blue Sky Vineyard. The setting feels like something out of Napa Valley.
One of the best reasons to tour the area is the budget-friendly cost of touring the wineries. Most of the tastings cost only a couple of dollars and some of them are for up to 10 tastings!
Best Wines to Taste on the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail
The Shawnee Hills are specifically known for cold-climate varietals; this includes Seyval, Vidal, Chardonel, and Chambourcin. If you were to “drink what the locals drink,” you’d probably end up with one of these wines. All are French-hybrid wine grapes but Seyval, Vidal, and Chardonel are white, while Chambourcin is red.
- Seyval: Citrusy with a minerality similar to a White Burgundy
- Vidal: Aromas of pear and pineapple
- Chardonel: Shares the best characteristics of both its parent grapes: Chardonnay and Seyval
- Chambourcin: The signature wine in the region is rich and full-bodied with soft tannins.
After trying about 30 different wines over two days we narrowed down our favorite wine to Blue Sky Vineyard’s Norton. However, the Chambourcin from numerous producers came in a close second. The medium-bodied Norton grape provides flavors of intense berry with aromas of cedar.
Best Places to Eat Along the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail
A few of the wineries offer on-site dining which mainly consists of snacks, sandwiches, and pizza. A great afternoon option would be to purchase your favorite bottle of wine and enjoy the laidback atmosphere of the Blue Sky Vineyards.
The large estate does feel like you might be enjoying a glass of wine in Tuscany, especially with the old-world architecture, rolling hills, grapevines, and large pond.
Another option is to head into Carbondale. The west side of Shawnee National Forest is only about 20 minutes from Carbondale where there are many dining options. Our recommendations for dining options near the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail include:
- Pinch Penny Pub (Carbondale) [Update: PPP closed in 2019. Try Chango’s Bar & Grill.]
- Giant City State Park Lodge & Restaurant (North).
- Blue Boar Restaurant (South).
- 17th Street BBQ (North East).
Outdoor Attractions Along the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail
Pomona Natural Bridge
A short five-minute loop trail leads to a 90-foot long natural bridge made of sandstone. The bridge is perched about 12 feet above the tree-covered ravine.
Little Grand Canyon Trail
This three-mile loop hike descends into a canyon surrounded by magnificent bluffs. The upper segments provide wonderful views of the Mississippi and Big Muddy rivers. The seasonal waterfalls along the way are a bonus.
Other Points of Interest
- Rendleman Orchards’ Farm Market
- Flamm Orchards
- General Store at Walker’s Bluff
- Bald Knob Cross
Use caution when visiting the area. Also, cell phones and GPS have difficulty getting a signal in many areas of the forest.
A great source for more detailed information on the trail is the Official Shawnee Hills Wine Trail website. For instance, you can find out about upcoming events, tasting fees, and other recommended lodging and dining options.