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Wine without Pretense: Biltmore offers more than a fancy mansion

POSTED: November 2, 2011 1:30 a.m.

I dropped in and chatted with the winemakers at America’s most-visited winery last month.

It was in:

A. Napa Valley

B. Sonoma County

C. Upstate New York

D. North Carolina

If you picked any one but D, go to your room. The country’s most-visited winery is at the Biltmore Estate, site of the largest single home ever built in America. That’s a bunch of superlatives in the rolling foothills outside Asheville.

For the record: According to Biltmore public relations spokesperson Lee Ann Donnelly, every year about a million people tromp through the 250-room mansion built by George Vanderbilt.

Of those, about 600,000 stop in at the winery tasting rooms. Contrast that with the immensely popular tasting room at Napa Valley’s Robert Mondavi Winery, which is visited by about 120,000 people every year.

Biltmore is a large wine-making operation, overseen by winemakers Bernard Delille, a transplanted Frenchman, and Sharon Fenchak, a Pennsylvania native. Although he’s been making wine at Biltmore for nearly 26 years, Delille still sports a strong French accent, which lends just the right sparkle to the conversation.

Delille earned his spurs in winemaking in Bordeaux and Burgundy. Under Delille’s tutelage, Biltmore’s production has grown — both in quantity and in quality. Although this winery does purchase the majority of the fruit that goes into their wines — especially the premium wines — this is not an estate that cultivates vineyards just for show.

"When I began here we were producing about 30,000 cases," he recalled. "Today, about 150,000 to 175,000 cases. And all vitis vinifera." He added that last thought with an emphasis that made it clear he does not want anything to do with French-American hybrids or native American grapes; just the classic European vinifera grapes.

Fenchak has Northeast Georgia ties. She was winemaker at Chestnut Mountain Winery in Braselton. Prior to that, she was assistant winemaker at Habersham Winery.

What vines won’t you find growing in Biltmore’s vineyards?

"You won’t find zinfandel, syrah, gewurztraminer or pinot noir here," Delille says, shaking his head. Why?

"They just don’t grow well here," he explained, noting, "We tried some experimental plantings of some of those grapes. They did not do well."

"We purchase pinot grigio, chenin blanc and riesling," said Fenchak. "The majority of this fruit comes from around the Monterey, Calif., area. We do grow and produce a North Carolina Riesling from our Biltmore Estate vineyard. It has a vintage date and a N.C., appellation."

Delille and Fenchak face some of the same problems facing Georgia vintners. Thin-skinned grapes, such as pinot noir, don’t do well in the high humidity of both western North Carolina and Northeast Georgia.

Molds, mildews and other diseases and insects make short work of less-hardy grapes. And winters at Biltmore are killer; colder and longer than in this neck of the woods.

Cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and chardonnay do well.

During our conversation in Biltmore’s bustling premium tasting room we sipped an impressive sparkling wine ... Biltmore Estate Chateau Reserve Blanc de Blancs. It’s crisp and toasty, and a lovely Champagne-style bubbly.

I know it is made in the traditional Champagne way, with second fermentation taking place in the bottle. I jokingly asked Delille if he considered producing it in the Charmat method, where that fermentation takes place in a big tank ... a cheaper way of making sparkling wine.

He looked at me grimly and declared, "Over my dead body."

I sampled two chardonnays — Biltmore Reserve NC Chardonnay and the Reserve from Sonoma County. The latter is unoaked. Both are very good wines; nice fruit structure, mouth feel and lingering finish.

Another white that impressed me is the 25th Anniversary Chardonnay-Viognier. The viognier fruitiness comes across in the nose, and the chard flavors make this a good food or sipping wine.

The 2010 Sangiovese needs a bit more time in the bottle. Good, well-made wine, but not quite mature. "The 2009 was better," Delille observed.

Delille and Fenchak are not afraid to put their wines to the test in major competitions. Some recent trophies include a Gold Medal for the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon at the San Diego International Wine Competition; a Gold for the Reserve Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley at the Dallas Morning News competition, and a 92-point rating for the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley by the Beverage Tasting Institute.

If you take a trip to Asheville — it’s only about three hours from Gainesville — make sure you tour the mansion. It covers four acres of floor space, has 250 rooms, 34 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces. It was, of course, built with the Vanderbilt fortune in a time when there was no income tax.

After you leave the house, stunned by the richness of the architecture, artworks and furnishings, a stop at the winery will be in order. Wine tasting is included in your day’s admission to Biltmore. If you want to taste the premium wines, price is $3 per taste, or three tastes for $8 — well worth the price.

I came away quite impressed with the wines of the Biltmore Estate, and with the people who make them.

Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at murrwine@aol.com. His column appears on the first Wednesday of the month and on
gainesvilletimes.com/life.



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