Chicago’s Diverse Wine Scene Includes Champagne Bars, Natural Bottle Shops and Destination Restaurants

People at Tanta Chicago's rooftop bar in warm weather
Tanta Chicago's rooftop/Photo by Paul Strabbing

“Being far removed from a major wine-growing region and being in a major industry-driven city creates a lot of diversity,” Bret Heiar, wine director at Chicago restaurant Nico Osteria, says of the wine culture in the city. Drinkers here embrace “classic wine programs, natural programs and hyper-specific concepts alike,” Heiar adds, and credits social media with opening palates and minds. “I think the digital world has made people much more adventurous, knowledgeable and curious.”

In Chicago, there’s plenty to explore. The city is home to more than 7,200 restaurants, 25 Michelin-starred spots and the James Beard Awards ceremony through 2027, Chicago is a food lover’s dream. Alongside this growth was the number and diversity of wine programs across the city.

Fernando Beteta, Master Sommelier and education director at Chicago-based importer and distributor Tenzing, has seen the city change dramatically since the Great Recession, and it’s more wine-inclined than ever.

“While the recession originally shifted the focus to less formal and emerging regions for wine, the spending has returned to high-end selections, and in big ways,” says Beteta, who also notes the increasing number of female-led programs throughout the city that include Maple & Ash, Proxi and Spiaggia. “The consumer is more willing to explore what the sommelier is offering.”

As the scene grows, there’s increasing opportunity for wine professionals to specialize their selections. Mom-and-pop producers and minimal intervention wines are more the norm. Restaurants, wine bars and shops dedicate sections and programs to these philosophies.

From a Champagne-centric standby to an Alsace-driven tasting menu destination, here are Chicago’s best places to sip and shop for wine now.

Exterior shot of Pops for Champagne Chicago
Pops for Champagne/Photo by Adam Nova

Wine Bars Worth (Many) a Visit

Bar Ramone

At this River North wine bar, an expansive tapas menu ensures something for everyone. Kick things off with a round of housemade tomato bread, patatas bravas fries, mushroom pintxos and Galacian octopus, alongside one of the Txakoli porrons. Then move to a bottle from any of the other small producers showcased on the 100-strong list, which includes Clos Cibonne, Jean-Louis Chave and Jacques Selosse. Rare Wine Wednesdays feature select bottles from some of the country’s most covetable cellars.

Pops for Champagne

Pops for Champagne, in River North, specializes in all things sparkling since its debut in 1982. Today, more than 140 bottles are available, with a focus on selections from smaller, family-run Champagne houses like Moussé L’Or d’Eugene Perpetuelle Blanc de Noirs, Substance Blanc de Blancs and Georges Laval Cumiéres Brut Nature. Taste through a variety of fare chosen for its affinity with bubbly, from caviar and crudo to oysters and arancini. Keep an eye out for happenings like Live Jazz Sundays, Magnum Mondays and weekday happy hours.

Rootstock

For low-key vibes and a serious wine program, head to Humboldt Park’s Rootstock that’s welcomed guests for more than a decade. The list features more than 80 bottles, around 20 available by the glass, with an emphasis on smaller-production, naturally made wines. Recent offerings include Domaine Thillardon “Pet Nat Rosé” or Kindeli “La Lechuza” Riesling. Try one, then dive into shared plates like boquerones (white anchovies) with butter and toast, harissa-topped Werp Farm carrots or Slagel ribeye. The chefs, Nicholas J. Labno and Edwin Perez, are just as eager to champion small producers as the wine team.

Webster's Wine Bar's front room on a rainy night
Webster’s Wine Bar/Photo by Jim Luning

Webster’s Wine Bar

It was a backpacking trip through Spain that sparked the idea of Webster’s Wine Bar for Janan Asfour and her husband, Tom MacDonald. In the 25 years since, it’s safe to say their inclinations were on point. That staying power has helped the team gain access to rare, hard-to-source bottles like the Alice et Olivier de Moor 2014 Coteau de Rosette Chablis and Emidio Pepe’s 1982 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Of the 250-plus labels available, the majority focus on minimal intervention practices from wineries that span the globe from Georgia and Lebanon to Mexico. Taste through an array of small plates, from wagyu beef tartare and mushroom flatbread to chicken croquettes and duck confit.

Winestyr

Inspired to create an in-person experience of the best smaller wine producers, the team behind this online wine marketplace opened showrooms in the city’s Lincoln Park and West Loop neighborhood in 2014. They’ve gathered wine lovers regularly for tastings of the select wines they sift through every month, plus a few special reserve offerings. Settle in with some cheese and crackers, then let their grape gurus guide you through a selection that includes Ovum Riesling, Scribe Pinot Noir, Rôtie Cellars Southern Blend and Vineyard 36 Foundation Red.

Left of oil being poured on a finished dish, right of interior banquet seating at Brass Heart Chicago
Brass Heart/Photos by Tom Gavin

Restaurants with Standout Wine Lists

Brass Heart

The Uptown area welcomed an exciting neighbor with last year’s arrival of Brass Heart, a multi-course tasting experience from chef Matt Kerney, formerly of Schwa and Longman & Eagle. Both nine- and 12-course menus reflect Kerney’s dedication to French technique and global influences. The evidence is found in bites like Spanish tortilla blinis, duck fat-poached scallop and sweet potato gnocchi.

The wine list nears 150 bottles and highlights smaller producers from around the globe, especially those from Alsace, France.

“The acid- and mineral-driven profiles of these wines pair up best with [Kerney’s] cooking,” says co-owner Vincent Maiorano. An example is the 2016 Domaine Weinbach Cuvée Colette Riesling, paired with mango- and chili-glazed coconut bread.

Giant

Low-key vibes and big flavors draw crowds to this Logan Square restaurant. Chef and co-owner Jason Vincent showcases a menu of playful plates like Jonah Crab salad with waffle fries, or super uni shooters with cucumber and soy.

The wine list is a focused array of minimal intervention wines with high aromatics and bright acidity. Josh Perlman, the beverage director and co-owner, calls upon personal relationships for most of his collection. If you run into obscure finds like Scribe’s pétillant-naturel Pinot Noir or Els Jelipins’s rosé made from Sumoll and Macabeu, ask about them. The team here is eager to engage with guests about all things wine.

Maple & Ash

An over-the-top experience awaits at Maple & Ash. Plush velvet curtains, custom-made chandeliers and a leather-bound bar are just a taste of what’s to come. Executive chef Danny Grant serves modern-day steakhouse favorites like king crab legs and filet mignon, as well as such surprises as dry-aged meatballs and Sauternes-soaked foie gras.

The list curated by wine director Amy Mundwiler boasts 1,800-plus selections, 49 available by the glass. Thanks to a Corvain program, guests can peruse two pages of wine unicorns to sample, like recent offerings of Domaine Romanée-Conti 2012 Échézeaux from Burgundy or the Harlan 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley.

Spiaggia's dining room during service
Spiaggia/ Photo by Galdones Photography

Proxi

International street food was the inspiration behind this striking West Loop restaurant. Andrew Zimmerman serves a menu with Japanese, Thai, Indian and Middle Eastern influences, like tempura-fried elotes or masala-rubbed whole fish.

Jennifer Wagoner’s wine list spans over 40 bottles, more than half available by the glass. Whether the wines are female-owned, like Jules Taylor from Marlborough, New Zealand, or female-made like Tiberio in Abruzzo, Italy, Wagoner is passionate to spotlight their efforts.

The Purple Pig

The Purple Pig’s new Magnificent Mile location offers more space to enjoy a medley of chef Jimmy Bannos’s cheese boards, antipasti and, of course, pork, which includes their signature milk-braised pork shoulder. Alan Beasey helms the wine list, a terroir-driven selection of nearly 800 bottles that pays special attention to Bordeaux, Tuscany, Slovenia, Croatia and Armenia. More than 180 wines are available by the glass, and sommelier-selected picks are just $8 during weekday happy hour.

Spiaggia

This fine-dining fixture has enjoyed a loyal following for its contemporary Italian cuisine, sweeping Magnificent Mile views and impressive wine selection. The list is an award-winning showcase of 700 labels that highlights Italy in its entirety. It’s concentrated on Piedmont, Veneto and Tuscany, but also includes Trentino sparkling wine, Sicilian sippers and an extensive assortment of grower Champagnes. The wine director, Rachael Lowe, can pair your wines with one of executive chef Eric Lees’s tasting menus, or house favorites like handmade gnocchi, bluefin tuna or dry-aged porterhouse.

Interior of The Noble Grape Wine Shop
The Noble Grape/Photo by Bloom Spot

Wine Shops for Every Occasion

Diversey Wine

Inspired to bring the same wine possibilities as their natural grape haven, Ordinaire, in Oakland, California, Bradford Taylor, Mac Parsons and Ann-Marie Meiers opened this Logan Square wine shop. The more than 250 labels available are focused on small and natural producers from France, Italy, Spain, Georgia and the U.S. The team often gets its hands on a couple of covetable finds, which can max out between six and 12 bottles for the whole city. Bring one next door for a bite at Cellar Door Provisions, where a wine list also skews natural and affordable—a nod to their knowledgeable neighbors.

The Noble Grape

In 2008, Alex Basich opened The Noble Grape in West Town in 2008 to bring a carefully curated lineup of affordable wines at the height of the recession. In the decade-plus since, the shop has acquired a steady fanbase for their dedication to quality and approachability alike. Its 250 globally sourced wines are perfect for any kind of celebration, whether wedding anniversary or Monday night. Visit on Wednesday or Friday for free wine tastings.

Wine Shop Spotlight: Wine Goddess in Evanston, Illinois

Perman Wine Selections

After he worked on wine programs at some of the city’s best restaurants (Alinea, Fat Rice), Craig Perman set out on his own with a bottle shop in the city’s West Loop (closed in 2018), and then opened this location in the Near North neighborhood in 2017. Those experiences inform a collection of more than 250 wines and 200 spirits, with a strong showcase of grower Champagne houses and selections from Piedmont and Portugal. Its calendar offers a range of tasting events centered on themes like Champagne, Nebbiolo and “France vs. The Rest of the World.”

Red & White

Nathan Adams opened Red & White in 2008, compelled to offer a retail destination for the same small-producer bottles he enjoyed during his stints at restaurants Boeufhaus, Bluebird and Brasserie Jo. Here, organic wines from independent growers and producers are a priority. The shop has more than 500 labels from France’s Loire Valley, Burgundy and the Rhône Valley, in addition to areas like Slovakia and Austria. Weekly tastings are held on Thursday, and educational classes are scheduled to start in 2020 with “An Introduction to Natural Wine.”

Wine Goddess

After two years where she penned full-page write-ups for a Napa-based online wine retailer, Diana Hamann realized the power of language in the wine world. That led her to open this Evanston-based wine shop, where emphasis is placed on the written word via in-depth product descriptions and weekly newsletters. There are also literary-based wine tastings, led by Meagan Fritz, an employee with a Ph.D. in Literature. More than 650 labels are represented from around the globe, and community gatherings include bimonthly classes and live music, along with special dinners, themed parties and trivia nights. –Nicole Schnitzler

Teal-accented interior bar of Amaru Chicago
Amaru/Photo by Lori Sapio

Latin American Wine in Chicago

Chicago’s reputation as a meat-and-potatoes town isn’t entirely fair, in part because immigrant communities also call the Windy City home and diversify its culinary heritage. Its vibrant Latin American food scene offers a deep dive into the wines of Mexico, Peru, Argentina and more.

Amaru

Amaru, a laid-back small-plates venue, is pan-Latin done right. Entrées from Rodolfo Cuadros pay homage to grains and vegetables. The solterito, a heaping salad of puffed quinoa, tomato, edamame, corn and queso fresco, is an exquisite burst of textures and flavors, and carnivores can indulge in the much-buzzed Frita Cubana burger. The wine list is a well selected array of Chilean, Argentinean, Spanish and Portuguese bottles, with several sparkling options that pair nicely with the array of spices.

El Che Steakhouse & Bar

The robust plates that come out of John Manion’s kitchen at El Che Steakhouse & Bar taste like they’ve been sent from an Argentinian campo. Short ribs, bifes, sweetbreads, marrow bones and other juicy bits abound as do Malbecs and Cabernets. The real surprises, however, lie in the selection of natural wines. Colomé’s Auténtico Malbec and Rogue Vine’s Gran Blanco are some of the more intriguing choices that favor wild yeasts and minimal sulfur.

Photo of the open kitchen at Leña Brava Chicago
Leña Brava/Photo by Galdones Photography

Leña Brava

Rick Bayless’s Leña Brava cantina invites guests to gather ’round a wood-fired hearth for an exploration of Baja California, Mexico. With one of the largest selections of Valle de Guadalupe bottles this side of the Rio Grande, the list includes an exclusive red blend crafted by the wine director, Jill Gubesch, in a partnership with Adobe Guadalupe winery. The food menu offers delicate, citrus-accented aguachiles and ceviches, plus flame-kissed al pastor marinated black cod and charred, glazed striped bass for two.

Tanta Chicago

Tanta offers a lively introduction to Peruvian food that doesn’t downplay its complexity. The menu reads like a greatest hits of the country’s specialties, from traditional criollo dishes to the Nikkei and chifa influences of Japanese and Chinese immigrants. Though to indulge in pisco, Peru’s wine grape brandy, is a must, Tanta is one of the few spots where you can also enjoy the burgeoning wines of the Ica desert, made from late-ripening grapes like Petit Verdot and Tannat. —Ines Bellina

Published on December 23, 2019
Topics: Travel


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