A wine trail you have probably never heard of is a hidden treasure. Accessible, friendly and affordable, South Dakota should be at the top of your list for discovering new wines.

When you think of visiting South Dakota, you probably don’t have much frame of reference aside from the Mount Rushmore trip you took as a kid, let alone think of vineyards and wine production. As freeways have gotten us from point A to point B much faster, or we have chosen flying over driving, states like South Dakota have been left largely undiscovered. It will probably shock you to learn that in 2005, South Dakota was recognized by Wine Business Monthly as the fastest growing wine region in the US.

Agriculture experts tabulate production of South Dakota wines at one million bottles since 1997, when the first farm winery was licensed in the state. More than 78,000 gallons of that wine was produced last year and production is expected to double in the next three years. As states like Missouri have perfected the marketing and wine business lessons that make these new regions successful, new regions like South Dakota flatten the learning curve and bound forward with quality wines from wineries that are dedicated to showcasing their unique grapes.

Start your wine road trip with a visit to the South Dakota Winegrowers Association web site. They have information on the wineries as well as a wine trail map. Most wineries are concentrated in the southeast region of the state, and within easy driving distance of each other during a long weekend or short road trip. Take time to experience the small towns along the way, with a night or two at each stop. Visit Southeast South Dakota’s tourism site for more details.

If you’re visiting the Mount Rushmore area, many vineyards have tasting rooms or additional facilities in the Black Hills area.

Valiant Vineyards

South Dakota’s wine story starts with Eldon Nygaard and his family. Located on the Vermillion River in southeast South Dakota, Valiant Vineyards is the first winery in the state – in fact, Nygaard wrote the Farm Winery Act for the state. Schedule an appointment for a free tour of the facility, cask room and bottling area, or just stop in for a free tasting. Valiant has won some prestigious awards in the past year for their unique wines, stay at the B&B for a night or two and experience winemaking with access you’ll never get in California -– the family is on site and will be thrilled to answer any questions.

Wild Grape Wine, their signature wine, is made from wild harvested grapes, and is the best way to start your wine road trip. Also noteworthy are Buck Naked, a blackcurrant honey wine and Rushmore White, a German-style white.

Strawbale Winery

Just outside Sioux Falls, the Strawbale Winery takes South Dakota winemaking back to its roots and pushing the eco-friendly side of winemaking at the same time. The winery is made from straw bales (hence its name) and prides itself on rethinking the sustainability side of the equation, while recreating the traditional environment for making South Dakota wine – the root cellar or cave that most farms had on their premises. Festivals at the winery are huge, community affairs, and well worth the trip.

Taste the wide variety of fruit wines, including Jalapeno Wine, a white grape wine with the kick of a jalapeno pepper and Black Barn, a blackcurrant wine.

Schade Vineyard

One of the first wineries to set up in South Dakota (number three to be exact), Schade Vineyard aims to bring a touch of the Napa Valley to South Dakota. The Grape Stomp Harvest Festival, in early September, is fun for the whole family.

Be sure to taste the Rhubarb Wine, a fruit wine you’ll typically see only in South Dakota. Holiday varieties are available for a very limited time, and are an interesting way to bring home a little of your trip for the whole family to enjoy.

If your trip extends to the Black Hills, stop at Prairie Berry Winery for a taste of their Red Ass Rhubarb fruit wine or LaCrescent 2009 (all South Dakota grapes). Be sure to reserve the Family Table Tasting, where you’ll learn about the wines, enjoy amazing food and taste food pairings.

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