Vine to Wine: Biltmore’s Tour of Estate Farmlands
Exploring Western North Carolina's Wine Country
“Where ARE you? Are you in France?” squealed the comments on my new Facebook profile picture. I didn’t have to cross the pond to stand in a hillside vineyard, the horizon sprawled out behind me, puffy clouds languidly skimming across the gently-rounded mountain ridges. But it certainly looked like it.
Rather, I was experiencing Biltmore Estate’s Vine to Wine Tour, which allows visitors to explore parts of the 8,000-acre estate not usually open to the public to experience Biltmore’s viticulture from the growing grapes to the bottle poured.
Celebrating its 30th year, Biltmore Winery is the most-visited winery in the United States with some 400,000 individuals touring a portion of the production facilities and experiencing the (fermented) fruits of the labor in the 300-person tasting room that is part of the price of admission to Biltmore.
Among Fields and Flowers
Our excursion to the west side of Biltmore—an area that most guests never see—begins in most civilized fashion with a glass of Pas de Deux Moscato, an effervescent semi-sweet wine bursting with tiny bubbles, served in the approach-garden amongst giant pink hibiscus heads and beds of black-eyed-Susans. Our delightful guide, John, offers us a delicate smoked salmon hors d’oeuvre.
We climb aboard the air-conditioned excursion van and follow a dirt road that meanders through fields and pastures dotted with handsome Belgian draft horses, sheep and donkeys grazing about.
Crossing over a bridge that traverses the French Broad River — the dividing line between the east side and west side of the estate — our guide swipes his electronic pass, opening the gates into the mysterious unknown. Green fields filled with leafy soy plants, tall corn, and rape seed — the three main crops grown on property — spread out before us and lead into rolling hills of rhythmically planted grapevines.
Along the way we learn that rape seed, which creates canola oil, is processed in its own plant on the estate for machine-grade use and goes into running much of the machinery here. The lushly-growing corn stalks will create feed-grade corn for the animals on the estate, continuing the legacy begun over a hundred years ago of being a self-supported homestead.
In Vino Veritas
We pass by remnants of the dairy production, (the Winery itself is actually housed in the former dairy barn) and disembark near the Chardonnay vines. Here, our guide pours us a perfectly chilled sip of the grape as we discuss Biltmore’s wine legacy, beginning with William A. V. Cecil, grandson of Biltmore founder George Vanderbilt, who had a vision to make the estate self-sustaining in the modern world with programs such as winemaking.
The first grapes were planted on the property as an experimental project in 1971. But, the first vintage, bottled in the elegant conservatory, was quickly pronounced “the crush of horrors,” after tasting. Cecil then traveled to France and hired a veteran winemaker — sixth generation winemaster Philippe Jourdain of Provence. The combined talents of Jourdain and later French Winemaker Bernard Delille and vineyard staff eventually led to the cultivation of vines for the unique climate and soils of Western North Carolina. Pennsylvania native Sharon Fenchak joined Delille as Winemaker in 1999 and conducts in-house research and development to help Biltmore lead the way in employing new grape-growing technology and testing grape-production methods.
Riesling, Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot have proven to be particularly well-suited for the North Carolina mountain terroir and the microclimate of the estate.
As we move up the hill to the Cabernet grapes, we learn that the Winery produces only 10 percent of what it processes. The Western North Carolina temperate rainforest zone is simply too wet for some of the delicate grapes to flourish. We learn why, how, and which grapes are transported from select growers in Washington State and throughout California, to help create some of Biltmore’s 43 wines (and counting.)
Heading back to the east side of the estate and to the winery itself, our third wine — a Reserve Cabernet Franc Dry Creek Valley — is poured as we learn about the processing and view the heavy duty machinery. The dark cool of the fermentation room greets us as we are dwarfed by massive stainless steel vats. The more familiar oak barrel rooms showcases the differences between French oak and American oak and the aging process. Our guide introduces us to the intricacies of the Methode Champanoise process that Biltmore uses for its sparkling wines, and we learn about the particularly odd-sounding process of champagne “gorging,” or removing sediment from champagne.
From ‘vine to wine’ truly reaches full circle when we spot the lovely linen-covered table lined with bottles and glasses for the rest of our tasting in the bottling room. Four types of cheese, Marcona almonds and two delicate truffles by the local Chocolate Gems chocolatier pair perfectly with our remaining wines — from Biltmore’s driest champagne to its peachy-Riesling, concluding with the more full-bodied reds.
I leave with my souvenir glass tucked into a gift bag and a satisfyingly thorough knowledge of wine making and pairing, far less the price of a ticket to France.