Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Biltmore Estate Winery

We were surprised to learn that the most visited winery in the United States is not located in California, nor in New York, but in Asheville, North Carolina: The Biltmore Estate Winery. Considering that the Biltmore Estate is the second most visited residence in the country - after the White House - this fact should not be surprising. The history of the estate and the Vanderbilt family is fascinating reading and the best source is the winery's website. Of interest here is the history of Biltmore's vineyards and winery and the vision of William and Bill Cecil, grandson and great grandson to George Vanderbilt, to establish a world class winery operation.

When building the Biltmore Estate, George Vanderbilt demanded that the estate be self-supporting. As a result the estate raised its own cattle and poultry and operated as a working farm and dairy. In 1971, William Cecil planted vineyards containing hybrid grapes, with vinifera grapes following a few years later. Eventually the vineyards were relocated to the banks of the French Broad River and now contain Chardonnay, Riesling, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot varieties. The vines have found a home in that climate, but must overcome one obstacle. Apparently beavers mistake the trellises for trees and attempt to use them as building material.

After several years of successfully growing grapes, the next logical progression was to create a winery and start producing wine. They selected a dairy barn as the location and converted it into a winery, tasting facility, and restaurant. Even though North Carolina is gaining a much deserved reputation for growing vinifera grapes, Bill Cecil, Jr., current President and CEO of The Biltmore Company, decided to obtain California grown grapes to ensure a high quality component for their wines.

On our visit, we were greeted by Steve Simmons, the Regional Account Manager for the Mid-Atlantic. We had met Mr. Simmons at the St. Michaels Wine & Food Festival and he had graciously invited us to tour the Biltmore. We started at the visitor center, then met winemaker Sharon Fenchak, who along with head winemaker Bernard Delille, craft the large selection of Biltmore wines. Ms. Fenchak explained her and Delille's wine-making philosophy - let the fruit speak for itself, with as little oak influence as possible - and described the quality of the California growers in which they source grapes. We moved to the aging and fermenting tanks, barrel rooms, and then the bottling room. There we were fortunate enough to discuss the bottling process for the sparkling wines with the actual bottler on the line.

Mr. Simmons explained that the wines are made Méthode Champenoise in which the fermented wine is bottled with extra sugar and yeast, and then capped with a soda-cap. The bottles then sit for two years, three for the Reserve Blanc de Blancs Brut, and rotated daily on a riddling rack. This process allows the sediment to move easily to the cap for "disgorgement". During this phase the cap is frozen and the sediment is removed along with the cap. The standard Champagne cork is then softened via a microwave and popped onto the bottle. One reason sparkling wine is relatively expensive is that this operation is a manual process. The Biltmore Estate® Château Reserve Méthode Champenoise Blanc de Blancs Brut is made from 100% North Carolina Chardonnay. We had this wine during lunch and it is an excellent dry and fruity wine. The winery also produces a dry Chandonnay - Pinot blend in the Biltmore Estate® Méthode Champenoise – Brut and slightly sweeter bottles of each varietal separately in the Biltmore Estate® Méthode Champenoise Blanc de Noir–Brut and Biltmore Estate® Méthode Champenoise–Sec. Need something sweeter. Try the Biltmore Estate® Méthode Champenoise Pas de Deux – Sec, made from Muscat Canelli grapes. This wine has the aroma associated with the muscat accompanied with a nice apricot flavor. And this wine is available for under $20. In fact all the sparkling wines are near $20, except the Reserve Brut which is still a reasonable $35.

We then ventured to the tasting room, where all of the Biltmore's wines are available for tasting, although you will have to pay a little extra for the premium and sparkling wines. The selection of wines is impressive - over 40 bottles from dry to sweet to vintage to blends. Whereas most of the fruit is provided by California growers, there are a few impressive wines from estate grown North Carolina grapes. With an eight hour drive facing us, we did not try their entire selection, but here are several that we liked:
  • Biltmore Estate® Chardonnay Sur Lies
  • Biltmore Estate® Chenin Blanc
  • Biltmore Estate® Riesling
  • Biltmore Estate® Century
  • Biltmore Estate® Château Reserve® Viognier– 2006 North Carolina
  • Biltmore Estate® Century Rosé
  • Biltmore Estate® Château Reserve Cabernet Franc
  • Biltmore Estate® Château Reserve Claret
There were two observations that we noticed throughout the day. The first was how content every worker we met was working at the Biltmore. Without prompting, each employee expressed gratitude for working for the Cecil's and how they enjoyed their occupation. The second observation is that the Biltmore is great publicity for the wine industry as a whole. When visiting the property, the winery tour is included so each year almost a million visitors taste the Biltmore wines. These visitors learn about lesser known grape varieties as well as the more popular Cabernet and Chardonnay. And if you think everyone has heard of Cabernet Sauvignon, you are mistaken. During our tasting a gentlemen from the previous group returned to the tasting bar to have our tasting assistant pronounce his favorite of the day: Cabernet Sauvignon. After his visit to the Biltmore, that person will more than likely purchase Cabernet from other wineries and a wine consumer is born.

This was one of our most enjoyable winery visits and we want to thank Mr. Simmons and the Biltmore staff for their service. We look forward to our return. When visiting the property give yourself a complete day to tour the residence, the gardens, and the winery. You will most likely come to appreciate - as we did - Olmsted's handicraft in designing the gardens. Conservationists will also appreciate Olmsted's efforts to reclaim over-used farmland by converting the land back to forests. And look for the bamboo.
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