Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, is truly a marvel. The center of attraction, the house, was built by architect Richard Morris Hunt for the George Vanderbilt family. The house was modeled on three 16th century French châteaux. It is comprised of four acres of floor space, 250 rooms, 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces, including a swimming pool, a gymnasium and changing rooms, a bowling alley, servants’ quarters, and kitchens in the basement alone. It took six years to complete, opening in 1895. The house is surrounded by gardens and landscaping created by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed New York City’s Central Park. The original property was 125,000 acres, and from that arose the birthplace of forestry management in Western North Carolina. Edith Vanderbilt sold approximately 86,700 acres of the estate’s land on May 21, 1914 to the federal government, which became Pisgah National Forest. In 1968, The Cradle of Forestry was born from 6500 acres of this land.
Today Biltmore is still an 8000-acre, family-owned working estate and National Historic Landmark. It does not receive any funding from the government, but rather, remains privately funded. The estate now includes the Inn on Biltmore Estate, the Cottage on Biltmore Estate, six dining options (all participants in Biltmore’s Field to Table Program, which focuses on growing and procuring the best foods), 13 shopping venues, a farm in Antler Village, the Outdoor Adventure Center (Segway tours, driving lessons in a Land Rover, fly-fishing, sporting clays, bike rentals, horseback riding, carriage rides, and river float trips on French Broad River), and a winery.
When I was growing up in Asheville, Biltmore was a household name, not just because of the estate, but because of Biltmore Dairy Farms. All of our dairy products came from Biltmore. Today Biltmore Estate’s winery is housed in this converted dairy barn. William A.V. Cecil, the grandson of George Vanderbilt, decided that a winery would be the natural outcome of ongoing research and a logical extension of his grandfather’s intention that the estate be self-supporting. The first vines were planted in 1971 in a valley near the French Broad River on the west side of the estate. The winery opened to the public in 1985.
Biltmore now has two winemakers, Bernard Delille and Sharon Fenchak, who have very different backgrounds. Delille is a French native, studied at the Faculty of Science in Lyon, France, and worked as a winemaker in the Pyrenées Atlantiques region. Fenchak is originally from Pennsylvania, holds degrees from Penn State University and the University of Georgia, and formerly made wines for two Georgia wineries. The winery currently grows Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Riesling, and Viognier in the 90-acre estate vineyard, as well as grows grapes in California, Georgia, Oregon, and Washington. Biltmore also produces wines in an undisclosed West Coast facility. The estate grapes are handpicked and harvest averages 250 tons of grapes per year. The grapes are then fermented in 75 tanks and aged in oak barrels or stainless steel tanks. The winery has a portfolio of 15 grape varieties and produces more than 45 wines. It also offers a tour and tasting, which is included as part of one’s admission to the estate, as well as specialty wine tours at a nominal fee. Those include Vine to Wine, Red Wine & Chocolate Seminar, and the Biltmore Bubbles Tour.
I have been a Biltmore Estate Passholder for a number of years, but had not been to the winery in a very long time. When I visited the winery on September 22, 2013, I was surprised how production had grown. There were 37 wines offered during my visit, but I only tasted 19 as I never saw any dump buckets or spittoons. Poor me. I arrived when the winery opened at noon, tasted some white wines, then embarked on the tour and tasting included in admission. Although the winery has grown, the tour was very similar to the one I took during my last visit, except for a focus on the sparkling wine production area. Upon concluding the tour, we tasted a barrel-fermented estate Chardonnay. We were told by our guide that Biltmore uses a combination of French and American oak and purchases new barrels every three years once they become neutral. Based on that information, I determined that the barrel-fermented wines would have more of an oak influence, which I first noticed with the Chardonnay we tasted. I returned to the large tasting area and tried the rosé and red wines. I was correct in my assumption about more prevalent oak aromas and flavors in the red wines. I also learned from the tasting hosts indirectly that Biltmore is very aware of their audience and consumer market. Customer favorites are also indicated on the tasting list provided to guests. Most of the wines produced appear to be targeted towards customer preferences, such as preferred grape varieties, use of oak, and sweetness/dryness. Interestingly, all of the still rosé wines I tasted were off-dry to sweet, which was my one disappointment. However, I would not be surprised if Biltmore doesn’t plan to offer dry rosé in the future, if they are keeping their eye on consumer palates and trends like I think they are.
I wanted to taste some of the premium offerings, especially the sparkling wines, so I made my way to the premium tasting area and wine bar within the wine shop. I elected to try three of the sparkling wines: Biltmore Estate® Château Reserve Blanc de Blancs – 2010 North Carolina (Chardonnay), Biltmore Estate® Brut (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier), and Biltmore Estate® Blanc de Noir (Pinot Noir). The first is North Carolina estate-grown and produced, while the other two are grown and produced by Biltmore with grapes from different American vineyards. All are produced in the traditional method, or méthode champenoise. My personal favorites of these three were the Reserve Blanc de Blancs, with its aromas and flavors of citrus, tree fruits, tropical fruits, and toast, and the Estate Blanc de Noir, with aromas and flavors of juicy cherries and strawberries. My host concluded my visit by offering me a taste of the Biltmore Estate® Reserve Riesling – 2012 North Carolina, which was a bit reminiscent of a Finger Lakes Riesling, off-dry, but balanced by some mouthwatering acidity.
I decided to purchase three of Biltmore’s wines, one white, one red, and one sparkling, for further tasting: the Biltmore® Pinot Grigio 2012 ($11.99, almost sold out), the Biltmore® Sangiovese 2012 ($18.99), and the Biltmore Estate® Blanc de Noir ($24.99), at 10% off for three bottles.
For those wishing to visit Biltmore, the winery is part of the estate admission, so the basic tour and tastings are complimentary. Their award-winning wines are for sale in the estate wine shop in Antler Village, at retailers, and online to states as allowable by state law. There are wine collections at all price points, something for everyone, including the Biltmore Collection ($9-$20), Century Collection ($15-$20), Biltmore Reserve Collection ($14-$30), Antler Hill Collection ($35-$50), and Biltmore Estate Sparkling Collection ($18-$30). The winery also has a wine club.