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Tasting Notes: Oak Hill Winery

23 February 2009 932 views No Comment

In part two of my winery adventure two weeks ago, I stopped by tiny Converse to visit Oak Hill Winery. The journey from Elwood to Converse was around 23 miles up Indiana 13 to IN-18, full of winding paths and some nice scenery. It was the perfect opportunity to see a part of Indiana I don’t get to see often, as well as reflect on my just completed visit to New Day Meadery. If you were planning on leaving from Indianapolis directly to Oak Hill, it is 15 minutes east on US-31 at the IN-18 turn. You will see a sign off of 31.

Oak Hill’s website says “our specialty is the fact that we make our wines to appeal to new wine drinkers more so than wine enthusiasts.” I thought that was a little unusual and welcome, both for the mission itself, and for not having a mission statement that says “our goal is to make great wines at an affordable price” like nearly every other winery. It is also yet another example of Indiana wineries tweaking the business model just slightly to find their niche.

Another business niche is the prominent advertisements about Oak Hill’s commitment to using as few chemical preservatives as possible. The flyer I picked up says the wine “does not contain any excessive sulfites, any fining material, or chemical preservatives, with one exception.” That exception is a small amount of potassium sorbate to prevent yeast production. This results in some of the wines being cloudy and a good amount of sediment in some of the bottles, so decanting or a strainer top is recommended. Still, this is as close as it gets to organic wines in Indiana.

Oak Hill is on what I assume is Converse’s main drag, IN-18, right in the middle of town. I parked on the street and came up the steps of the two-story Victorian style home. The winery itself is on the bottom floor and you must go up a long set of stairs to get to the upstairs tasting room.

The upstairs is heavy on the wood with low lighting. There was only one other customer who was drinking a glass at a table. I sidled up to the long wood tasting bar and was greeted by Sherry (what a great name for someone who works at a winery!). In all the Indiana wineries I have visited, I have always been treated courteously and made to feel welcome. This one was no different, but I will say that Sherry was certainly the most colorful salesperson I have met. She had me in stitches as various points in the tasting.

Sherry is also a trickster. Oak Hill had 20 wines available for tasting on the day I arrived, and Sherry had me talking so much and asking questions while the next pour was being made so effortlessly that I took me 10 tastes or so before I realized she was intending on having me taste the whole flight. Not to worry, there’s a “junk bucket” as Sherry put it, for leftovers. Furthermore, if you are not the type to swallow, there’s a special test. Remember that long flight of steps? Sherry said those were the “sobriety steps” and if you stumble in any way going down, you’re sticking around for a while. Regardless, this is one winery where spitting is certainly highly recommended.

Oak Hill has no vineyards, so therefore it must buy all of the juice it needs. One trend I noticed was that a dry version of a wine would often be on the list opposite a sweeter variety using the same grapes.

Thanks to my recent drive in the countryside, I was able to pick up that the wines are named after local small towns. From Jalapa to Sweetser to Fairmount, they’re here. Nice local homage. Sadly, a bottle I greatly wanted to try, Oak Hill’s mead, Mead Marion, was out of stock. I was interested in the comparison having just come from New Day. I must also confess that it took me a week before I got the pun. I got the Maid Marion reference immediately, but didn’t realize it is also a homage to the local town of Marion.

Here’s my tasting notes highlights. Oak Hill has a standard pricing system, with 1 or 2 bottles costing $9.99, 3 to 6 costing $8.99 each, 6 to 11 $8.49, and one dozen or more costing $7.99. Special Release wines are $12.99.

Mississinewa White-a Sevyal Blanc that is just about bone dry. Crisp, with good mineral notes. Not much else, though that is typical of Sevyal Blanc.

Roann-The description asked the taster to guess which fruit the wine was made of. This dry peach wine was surprising, and the confusion some have is evident. It could easily be mistaken be plum or even apple cider. A unique twist resembling a very dry Riesling.

Hanging Rock-Made from Chambourcin grapes, a red quickly and with good reason becoming one of the prominent grapes being cultivated in Indiana. My favorite of Oak Hill’s dry wines, this wine is dominated by cherry and spice, with good balance of tannins. At this price, it’s a value.

Peru Peach-This tasted very thin, like the bottle has been opened too long. I did notice the bottle was nearly empty, so I am going to assume the wine was past the recommended shelf life.

Bunker Hill-Oak Hill’s Concord offering. It’s Concord, and if you like Concord, you will enjoy this offering. If you find Concord too sweet, you won’t. I didn’t find it be cloying like some other Concords I have tasted, but it is still pretty sweet.

Borderman-Diamond and cranberry blend. I have never tasted Diamond wine before (yet another to get to my Wine Century Club). This variety is a cross between Concord and Iona. It does have the sweetness of Concord, but is a little mellower. The cranberry gives it a little kick, and the blend is pleasant. Again, if you don’t care for cranberry wine, this is not for you. Would be a perfect wine around holiday time for those who like sweeter wines.

Kokomo Cider-My favorite taste of the flight. Served slightly warm, it is everything I look for in a cider. Great apple flavor and spice that radiates and warms the body. One of the best Indiana ciders I have tasted.

Wawpecong-apple and blackberry blend. It was fine, but I didn’t appreciate the blend of the two fruits as much as I thought I would. As a fan of blackberry wine, I missed the richness of the blackberry standing alone. It’s hard to do blackberry well at a low price point, so why try? Do it solo and make it a limited release at a higher price.

I also purchased another bottle, and will do a group review later.

What is also unusual about Oak Hill are the labels. They are black and white drawings appropriate to the name of the wine. I wish I could find a picture of them, but I can’t. They remind me of a set of illustrated Dickens novels I had as a child. I wish I would have taken the time to look at all of them.

Overall, I was pretty impressed with this winery. Oak Hill is clearly on the upswing of it’s trajectory, and there is still lots of growing to do. Some of the wines were very good, and even some of the average wines get a bump up because of the value their price point presents.

I would hope that some who enjoy wines would make a point of seeking out the northern Indiana wineries. Sadly, due to geography, they can be so easily ignored. I myself haven’t been able to get to all of them. I know there are plans in the works for a trail linking some of them, and hopefully the creation of that and some great product will make them as popular as their southern cousins. In the meantime, they have to work twice as hard to distinguish themselves. Oak Hill is doing that by value, the great staff, commitment to more “natural” wine, and the wine club (I have previously wrote about that here-it’s a great value).

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