South Dakota: Undiscovered Wine Country

South Dakota Wine: Undiscovered No Longer

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 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 Interstate 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 Birdsong Vineyards. Established in 2008, they’re producing fruit wines from area orchards.

Discovering Sioux Falls

This small, likeable city, population 141,000, continually wins “liveability” awards from various national publications. Sioux Fallsboasts 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 Raspberry offering, made with 95% local apples and 5% raspberries. We bought a few bottles of this, along with their American Frontenac, a semi-dry red that works well with cheese.

If you’re ever in Sioux Falls around dinner time, we offer a very high recommendation to Food ‘N Fermentations. Housed in an historic brewery building downtown, Food ‘N Fermentations combines a wine shop, cheese cave and cafe. We sampled a few items from their menu, including an Apple and Pork Sandwich, which is much more artisan than it sounds. We enjoyed it so much that we noted the menu description: “Thin sliced pork loin & caraway havarti is topped with beer-braised apples and sage pesto on a multigrain ciabatta roll.” Also of note, Food ‘N Fermentations carries numerous South Dakota wines. We stocked up on a few bottles and enjoyed a stroll over to the cascading falls of the Big Sioux River, in the heart of downtown.

The next morning brought us back downtown for a visit to Home Porch Gifts for its wide selection of made in South Dakota products. Then, it was off to visit two more suburban Sioux Falls wineries that comprise part of southeastern South Dakota’s wine trail.

Our first stop on this day was Hahn Creek Winery in the small town of Crooks, a suburb of 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, located 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 the cheese we purchased at Food ‘N Fermentations.

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 farther west.

You’ll find Mitchell and the Corn Palace at exit 332 off of Interstate 90 and Wall Drug Store off exit 110. Don’t worry that you’ll forget to notice these two institutions of Americana –there’ll be countless billboards on I-90 to remind you! Each is well worth an hour or so of your time, if only to pick up a few kitschy souveniers and to say you’ve been there. If you’re looking for a good dinner spot,

Not long after Wall Drug, Interstate 90 begins to enter the Black Hills area and Rapid City, the largest city in western South Dakota.

Rapid City, Mt. Rushmore and Wine

Rapid City isn’t large, with a population of just over 60,000. And yet, this area welcomes more than 3 million visitors per year as a launching pad for all the area’s attractions. Simply put, Rapid City and its environs are beautiful. It’s paradise for an outdoor enthusiast.

There are numerous mountains at Rapid City’s doorstep. Also, you’ll find crystal blue lakes, quiet woods and numerous historical and natural attractions. Crazy Horse Memorial, Black Hills National Forest, Custer State Park, five National Parks and Mt. Rushmore are just some of the sites to see. We settled in for a few days stay, intent on exploring all this area has to offer.

Our first stop upon arriving was dinner at Firehouse Brewing Company in downtown Rapid City. If you hit Firehouse Brewing on a Thursday or Sunday, be sure to try the Buffalo Brisket special. A South Dakota specialty, the lean tender buffalo meat is slow smoked on site, and pairs wonderfully with their Firehouse Red Ale. We also recommend the Stuffed Piquillo Peppers, a unique mild and smoky pepper stuffed with goat cheese. Firehouse Brewing has also been featured on The Food Network, and for our money it’s not to be missed. Another very good dinner choice is Corn Exchange Bistro. Its seasonal menu and imaginative offerings are made with the freshest of ingredients from South Dakota growers.

Two Wineries in the Black Hills

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 Winery, owner Sandi Vijta oversees the production of more than 30 traditional and fruit wines, carrying on a family winemaking 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.

And, while you’re visiting Spearfish, be sure to stop in at the Spearfish Chop House and Whiskey Bar. The spinach and goat cheese salad with bacon vinaigrette and red pears is recommended, as is the corn meal pan-fried South Dakota trout, and a strip steak with roast garlic and port wine sauce.

We also had the opportunity to visit Spearfish’s new microbrewery, Crow Peak Brewing Company, open since March 2007. Stop in their brewery taproom or enjoy their outdoor deck. There’s also a farmers market next door. We enjoyed the Pile ‘O Dirt Porter, a rich, roasty dark beer.

Other South Dakota Wineries

Much like other states, small wineries continue to spring up in South Dakota. There are at least three other farm wineries that are either open or scheduled to open soon.

We didn’t venture up to Volga, north of Sioux Falls a few miles west of Route 29, to visit Schade Winery. Owners Jim and Nancy Schade strive to produce true South Dakota wines using South Dakota-grown products. Their wines are available at Food ‘N Fermentations in Sioux Falls, so we bought a bottle each of their Oakwood Red, Chokecherry and Tawny. None disappointed! Oakwood Red was rich and complex, complementing a grilled ribeye. Chokecherry, a crisp bold red, worked well with baked rotini, while the Tawny combined grapes, elderberries and a touch of honey.

Also, if you’re meandering South Dakota’s south central area near the Nebraska border, stop in at Pete’s Creek Winery in the small town of Burke. They can be reached by phone at 605-775-9060.

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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