Wine Travel: Wineries Thrive In South Dakota

Sometimes wine sneaks up on you. But this story isn't what you might be thinking. If you love to travel like we do, you've learned to keep an open mind and experience what your destination offers. In the case of South Dakota, I'll readily admit we weren't seeking a wine travel experience. But it's funny how things work out sometimes. We weren't looking for South Dakota wine, but South Dakota wine found us. And we're glad it did!

Our plans called for a drive across South Dakota on Interstate 90 to visit the famed Black Hills and Mt. Rushmore area, just outside of Rapid City. Interstate 90 is the main thoroughfare here, stretching the entire 400 mile length of the state.

After some preliminary research, we learned the Missouri River cuts across South Dakota and forms an abundant fertile valley area in the extreme southeastern part of the state. This is where you'll find the small city of Vermillion, where Iowa and Nebraska intersect with South Dakota off of Interstate 29.

Viewing the surrounding landscape, we were reminded of our recent wine trails trip to Missouri, with high bluffs and rolling hills and the Missouri River below. So it was no surprise to see an advertisement for a winery in Vermillion, Valiant Vineyards and Buffalo Run Winery. With an overnight stay ahead of us about 45 minutes north on Intestate 29 in Sioux Falls, it was a perfect time for some wine tasting.

Located on the Vermillion River overlooking the Missouri River, Valiant Vineyards and Buffalo Run Winery is actually part of the Buffalo Run Resort. This attractive resort is well known in the area, and offers an attached bed and breakfast along with typical resort activities.

Along with sampling their spicy Turkey Ridge Creek Shiraz, our friendly hostess told us a bit about grape growing and wine production in South Dakota. As we surmised, South Dakota's winter climate doesn't make for ideal growing conditions, but certain wine grapes do very well in the southern section of the state. Commonly grown varieties include Frontenac, St. Croix, Brianna, and La Crosse, a white wine grape with Seyval Blanc parentage. South Dakota vintners also take full advantage of various fruits, giving wineries an abundant spectrum of choices for wine lovers.

After leaving the resort, it was a short drive up Interstate 29 to South Dakota's largest city, Sioux Falls. On the way, in nearby Beresford, is a brand new winery, Birdsong Vineyards. For now, they're producing fruit wines from area orchards, with the expectation of offering at least a dozen different wines by summer 2008.

Discovering The Sioux Falls Wine Trail

This small, likeable city, population 141,000, continually wins liveability awards from various national publications. Sioux Falls boasts ample lodging options, a charming historic downtown area, and three wineries just a stone's throw from one another. In short, a perfect place to spend a day or two.

Before settling in and exploring dinner options, we made a stop at Wilde Prairie Winery in Brandon, a suburb of Sioux Falls. This is a family farm winery at its finest. Wilde Prairie is located just west of a creek surrounded by rolling hills, perfect for growing grapes. We were delighted with the wide variety of interesting fruit wines, including a fun Apple Rasberry offering, made with 95% local apples and 5% rasberries. We bought a few bottles of this, along with their American Frontenac, a semi dry red that works well with cheese.

Our first stop the next day was Hahn Creek Winery in the small town of Crooks, SD (suburban Sioux Falls). Their vineyards were planted earlier this decade and crops include 10 varieties of grapes, strawberries, elderberries, chokecherries, and more. We loved the White Riesling, with its flavors of grapefruit and apricot. Also their most recent Chardonnay, with a tropical fruit nose and mildly spicy mouth feel.

For the third stop in our Sioux Falls winery trek, we visited perhaps the most architecturally interesting winery we've seen. It's Strawbale Winery, in the town of Renner. The winery itself is actually insulated with straw bales, hence the name. This is truly a farm setting, as the winery sits between a beautiful century old red barn and the vineyard used for Strawbale's wine. Grapes are cold hardy varieties that thrive in this South Dakota valley climate. Dechanauc and St. Croix grapes are used to form Ruthie's Red, a semi sweet red named after a cherished pet. We also enjoyed their clear, dry Seyval Blanc, which paired nicely with some locally made cheese we purchased the day before.

From here, it was time to travel west on Interstate 90, through South Dakota's heartland. It's a good day's drive from here to our ultimate destinations: Rapid City, Mt. Rushmore, and the famous Black Hills area. Along the way on this roughly 300 mile trek are two of America's most well known tourist attractions, the Corn Palace in Mitchell and Wall Drug Store further west.

Black Hills Wineries

Rapid City isn't large, with a population just over 60,000. And yet, this area welcomes over 3 million visitors per year as a launching pad for all the area's attractions. Simply put, Rapid City and its environs are beautiful. The air is fresh and clean - paradise for an outdoor enthusiast.

Visiting The Two Wineries

After a visit to majestic Mt. Rushmore, we enjoyed the hospitality at the two wineries here in western South Dakota. Both are well known for using South Dakota grapes and fruits to produce their products. Let's first explore Prairie Berry Winery, in nearby Hill City, about 20 miles from Rapid City.

At Prairie Berry, owner Sandi Vijta oversees the production of 30+ traditional and fruit wines, carrying on a family wine making tradition since 1876. You can eat lunch at their bistro, or sample their many award winning offerings. Their Frontenac and Frontenac Gris have won gold medals from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

Prairie Berry specializes in making regional wines from domestic and wild fruit of the prairie, including chokecherries, buffalo berries, rhubarb, currants and locally raised honey. They also make wines from new grape hybrids, specifically developed to grow in South Dakota's colder, drier climate. Be sure to try the citrusy Cascade Falls, a semi dry white made from a blend of Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc grapes.

Venturing over to fruit wines, we ended up buying several bottles of Gold Digger, made with local handpicked pears. Pleasant and mildly sweet, it is perfect for happy hour or with grilled fish. If it's available, try the very popular Brianna, a fruity white wine made with South Dakota grapes. We had a lot of fun reading testimonials from wine lovers who favorably compared the wines to California offerings, and lauded the friendly, relaxed service. Just a short drive west from Rapid City on Interstate 90 is the town of Spearfish, near the Wyoming border. Spearfish is the home of Black Hills Winery, which offers a full range of fruit wines and an appealing Gewurztraminer.

This was truly an enjoyable journey. South Dakota is a beautiful, clean state with numerous natural attractions and friendly small cities. And as we continue to learn, good wine is everywhere, and quite a lot of fun to find!

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