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SPOTLIGHT: Bountiful grape harvest in central Ill.

By Eric Engel

(Peoria) Journal Star

Published: Thursday, Sept. 29 2011 4:46 a.m. MDT

In this photo takne Sept. 22, 2011, Paul Hahn, owner of the Mackinaw Valley Vineyard, harvests Niagra grapes at the vineyard in Mackinaw, Ill. Local vineyards are reporting generous yields and flavorful grapes because of exposure to the unrelenting heat this season. Unlike many forms of vegetation, grapes are unique in that they produce intensified flavor when compacted upon the vine by a lack of moisture.

Journal Star, Ron Johnson, Associated Press

MACKINAW, Ill. — The equation is simple. The more grapes you can squeeze into a bottle of wine, the better it will taste.

Every grape has individual flavor characteristics, located directly under its skin, so quality wine results from combining as many unique flavors as can collectively fit into one bottle, said Paul Hahn, the owner of Mackinaw Valley Vineyard.

Local vineyards are reporting generous yields and flavorful grapes because of exposure to the unrelenting heat this season. Unlike many forms of vegetation, grapes are unique in that they produce intensified flavor when compacted upon the vine by a lack of moisture.

Hahn, who is close to completing his harvest, said the summer weather assisted his crops immensely.

"In wet years, the grapes are plump and watered down, as is the flavor of the fruit," said Hahn, whose vineyard and winery is on Illinois Route 9 in Mackinaw. "But in a drought year, the grapes are smaller, so their flavor is intensified, and the masher produces better tasting wine the more grapes that are added."

Kate Taylor, a wine maker at Kickapoo Creek Winery in Edwards, refers to the hottest days of the season as "growing degree days." The sugar content of the grape, which provides the flavor, is dictated by the heat, with higher temperatures ensuring greater flavor.

Doug Abbott, the vineyard manager at Willett's Winery in Manito, who just completed his first year in the field, used an irrigation system that complemented the heat until the grapes were ready to be picked.

"Many volunteers, including friends and family, helped harvest the vines by hand," said Abbott, speaking of a practice common to most every local vineyard.

Harvesting by hand is considered practical for smaller operations because it helps to assure the quality of the fruit rather than the quantity of the yield.

"I'm a wine maker first, and a vineyard manager second," said Taylor, who said that she keeps a keen eye on her vines during their growing cycle. "We're ideally looking for four tons of grapes per acre come harvest season, so sometimes I'll trim the vines to avoid stressing them and diluting the berry."

Like any other agricultural entity, a wine vineyard is host to a number of obstacles.

All three vineyards sprayed on a regular basis for Japanese beetles, and nets were used to keep birds from robbing the vines of their grapes. Hahn said that he even had to deal with hail damage early in the season.

"Even though we're working with grapes, it's still basically farming," said Hahn. "You'll always have to deal with the elements and the pests."

Regardless of the deterrents experienced during the growing season, Taylor reiterated that for a wine maker, enjoying the fruits of their labor means creating a valuable product.

"About this time next year, these grapes will be wine on the shelves," she said.

Information from: Journal Star, http://pjstar.com

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