COST: $23-$26, $16-$18
WHAT: Spring is one of my favorite times to visit the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., so I thought it would be a good time to look at a couple of Biltmore wines.
Though the 250-room French Renaissance chateau and grounds have been open to the public since 1930, the winery is only 31 years old. Some people thought it would be impossible to produce fine wine in the mountains of North Carolina, but owner William A.V. Cecil proved them wrong.
The winemakers at Biltmore have taken an interesting approach to producing wine, using estate grapes as well as fruit harvested from partners in North Carolina and other premium growing regions in the United States, including California. These two wines illustrate the two main approaches Biltmore has to its wine.
The cabernet franc is grown on the Biltmore Estate while the sauvignon blanc comes from California grapes. As a result you can find many different varieties behind the Biltmore label.
I especially appreciated their cabernet franc, because it is an under-appreciated wine in the United States. Wineries in Virginia and North Carolina have discovered its charms, and are making great wine with it. The grape produces wines with backbone and subtle nuances that make it perfect for elegant dinners or backyard picnics.
The Biltmore cab franc is a gorgeous deep black cherry color, with aromas of blackberry, licorice and spice. It has a nice, smooth mouthfeel with ripe blackberry and raspberry flavors followed by a hint of smoke and black pepper. It is a full-bodied, hardy wine, able to stand up to hearty meals.
The juice is fermented in stainless steel tanks on the lees with daily pump-overs to get maximum color and tannin extraction. After fermentation the must is pressed and stored in French and American oak barrels for 14 months.
The limited release sauvignon blanc grapes come from California and then are handled in small lots in the Biltmore winery. Fermentation and malolactic fermentation take place in French and American oak barrels. The wine is then aged for 6-8 months in oak before blending and bottling. The result is a smooth, mellow sauvignon blanc.
It is a light gold color with some vanilla in the aroma. Delicate citrus tastes of lemon and grapefruit mingle with oak notes to produce an elegant wine. It should be served well chilled. This wine is available only at the estate and online.
WINERY: When George Vanderbilt opened Biltmore House in 1895 he was known for treating his guests to high quality Champagne and other fine wines.
But wine was not produced on the property until his grandson, William A.V. Cecil had the vision to build on Biltmore’s agricultural tradition and introduce vineyards and a winery in the early 1970s. When Cecil began his experiments few people were producing wine from grapes grown in North Carolina.
Cecil spent a decade learning how to grow grapes in the mountains, consulting with some of the best minds in viticulture, first in California and later in France.
That led him to hire Phillipe Jourdain, an experienced French winemaker, and together they created a world class winery. They planted 150 acres with wine grape species grown in France and other fine wine regions.
The new winery built in the estate’s former dairy barn opened in 1985. It was popular right from the start and is now the most visited winery in the United States. The barn had been designed by Richard Morris Hunt, the architect of Biltmore House. The revisions to the winery and tasting room are faithful to the Hunt designs, and the result is spectacular.
Another French winemaker, Bernard Delille, joined the team in 1986. He became Biltmore’s winemaster in 1995, continuing today with the help of Sharon Fenchak, a University of Georgia graduate.
The tasting room is a fun part of any Biltmore House visit, with barrel tastings, cooking demonstrations, food and wine pairings and jazz and blues performances. The winery is a great place to visit, with a self-guided tour that leads straight to the tasting room, where you get a good sampling of the Biltmore wines.
Some of the grapes grown on the estate include cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, riesling, chardonnay and viognier. The locally grown grapes can be very good, especially their sparkling wines. The winery also produces wines from California grapes. The winemakers take an innovative approach to their craft and produce beautiful wines.
Production has increased to 150,000 cases a year.
GOES WITH: We had these wines with hamburgers on the grill and thought they were great wines for the occasion. The sauvignon blanc was perfect for sipping while I prepared the burgers. It was a lively aperitif while we chatted in the kitchen, nibbling on cheese and crackers and waiting for the burgers to cook outside.
It also would go well with scallops with bacon, garlic shrimp, raw oysters, goat cheese or lobster salad.
The cabernet franc paired nicely with the hearty cheeseburgers. The fruity, slightly spicy characteristics of the wine matched the juicy charred burgers. The flavors seemed amplified with each sip and bite.
This wine would pair well with rabbit, quail, turkey legs, ribs, eggplant or chicken parmesan.