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The Winery and Wines of the Biltmore Estate

Housed in what used to be a thriving dairy barn is a winery which produces just under two million bottles annually of vinifera wines, using estate grapes, North Carolina sourced fruit and West Coast grapes as well.  The Winery at the Biltmore Estate  is big, efficient, a gracious host and also makes some excellent wine.  We’ll review a few of them later on, but let’s talk about the winery first.

The store

The store

Up until the mid 1970’s the structure had housed herds of dairy cows, and at one point the Biltmore Estate owned the largest herd of Jersey cows in the world.  When the business was eventually moved offsite and later sold, the structure sat empty.  The then current property owner decided to start producing wines, and took his first plunge with indigenous North American vitus labrusca grapes.  These were predictably not world class, and after also trying hybrids the real watershed event happened when a chance encounter with a sixth generation French winemaker led to said Frenchman relocating to Asheville and directing the planting of the new vinifera vineyards.  Now all of the estate grapes are vitus vinifera and the estate focuses on quality wines.

IMG_0045

The crusher/destemmer

The soil here is somewhat unique, and the winery boasts it’s own unique soil designation, Biltmore Sandy Loam.  They also have their own unique clone of rootstock, developed specifically for them.  This is a place that takes wine making seriously, and that is evident in the dedication to traditional wine making techniques while they still push the envelope with regard to improving processes wherever it makes sense.  They make a great deal of

Gyropalette

Gyropallete

sparkling wine in the traditional method (5 or 6 types) with the complete second fermentation occurring in the bottle and with a brine solution freeze, disgorgement and dosage stage.  Various styles are produced across the sweetness range, although I believe they produce mostly brut and extra brut.  We tried their flagship sparkler later in the day and it was excellent, of high quality, clean, crisp and with really tiny bubbles.

We were fortunate enough to arrange a private tour of the production facilities, followed by a wine and chocolate tasting.  Our very capable tour guide, Laura, was informative and knowledgable.  This is not a boutique winery with a few medium sized stainless fermentation tanks and a couple of oak barrels.  There are barrels everywhere, and the main fermentation rooms are

One barrel area

One barrel area

huge, lined with large stainless tanks as big as 13000 gallons.  All the oak used here is medium toast, and runs about two thirds American and one third French with a smattering of Hungarian barrels as well.  They are experimenting with other suppliers around the world.  Deceptively small, the bottling line runs long days when they are filling and can handle both the 750ml and dessert sized bottles.  When asked if they did either half bottles or large format Laura replied they did not.  Both Cheri and I argued for large format, especially considering the weddings they bottle for.  Maybe sometime in the future.

One really interesting feature was a row of large, horizontal stainless fermentation tanks that rotate to keep the lees moving and allow the carbon dioxide to bleed off. These tanks can also be moved around on an ingenious rail system.  I had never seen anything quite like this before, and this was

The horizontal fermenting tanks

The horizontal fermenting tanks

a great example of how they are looking for better ways to make wine where it makes sense.  Only where it makes sense though, as the impression we got was that the winemakers are very much rooted in traditional methods.  They are experimenting with

One tank room

One tank room

different grapes, and there have been around thirty varieties tried in the vineyard areas around the estate.  Currently they grow six staples, Riesling, Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.   They make many more varietal wines from sourced material.  Only about 15% of the wine is from estate grapes.

One aspect I’d like to point out is the way they go about producing wine from the west coast grapes.  We’re not generally big fans of local wineries in the east that source California grapes and make their own versions of ‘Napa’ or some other region.  In general these are inferior to the originals and more expensive.  We have rarely found them to be good values. In this case the winemakers from the Biltmore travel to the west coast, select the vineyards sites, negotiate the sales, crush in a facility near the  producing vineyards and ferment.  They seem to believe that shipping the grapes to the east coast is not  conducive to making the best wine, which based on everything I have ever learned is very true.  Their approach is really that they are making a true California, or Washington as appropriate, wine in their style.  They ship their wine back to the east coast, but it is wine they have made from step one.  Based on our tastings it is also very good.

When you visit you can end with a free tasting of many of the wines, which is really somewhat surprising given the tendency for wineries to charge for tastings these days.  If you consider that they may provide 1000 free tastings on a slow day we are talking about a lot of potential revenue here.  Not to worry, however, as they sell a lot of wine.  They are about the 32nd largest producer in the country and are available in over thirty states.  Remember that tip about visiting on weekdays, because on a busy day they might receive 10,000 visitors with corresponding tastings.  On a busy day you will probably have to wait a bit.

The premier wine tasting bar

The premier wine tasting bar

In the back of the shops, outside the main tasting area, is the premium wine tasting bar, which allows you to try their higher end bottlings for a nominal fee.  Either by the sample or in a flight you should stop here, because their top end stuff is really pretty good.  Bottle prices vary, but there are some very good values.  We actually choose to have a bottle of Biltmore Dry Creek Cabernet at dinner in the Inn, because it seemed like the best value on the wine list. It was young, but it was decanted and proved to be excellent.  Here are some notes on the wines we tried:

2011 Biltmore Reserve Pinot Noir – this is 100% Russian River Valley fruit from Sonoma.  It’s got great color, and is quite dark red.  There is beautiful fruit here, on the nose and on the palate that lasts throughout.  A nice long finish rounds out a really nice wine.  This is $25, which is certainly not out of line with what you’d pay for a Sonoma version.  This is substantial too at 14.6% alcohol.  Very good, recommended and we bought one to take with us.

Biltmore Cardinal Crest – this is a NV blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah and Barbera.  There seem to be more and more wineries adding Barbera to red blends lately.  Anyway, it is a deep ruby color and chock full of red fruit aromas and flavors.  Medium bodied it has silky tannins and finishes long.  At $13 this is a steal and we wish we could buy it around our home.  Really good value here.

Biltmore Sangiovese – NV blend of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Tempranillo.  This wine had the traditional tart black cherry aromas and flavors.  It is a nice deep ruby color.  It’s really pretty classic Sangiovese, very Chianti-like and carries some bright acidity.  This would be very good with food.  Good wine, but not as good a value as the previous two as it checks in at $18.99.  Still, you could pay that much easily for a similar quality Rosso di Montalcino or Chianti.

2011 Biltmore Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon NC – 80% estate grapes and 20% Californian, this is dark ruby and medium bodied.  Some tannin comes across but it is light.  The mid palate is lacking and the wine seems somewhat flabby.  It’s not great but it’s not terrible either.  We wouldn’t spend $25 on it, and of the first four (which we had at the Wine and Chocolate tasting) this is our least favorite.  There was much more to taste however, so we headed to the Premium Wine Bar for more.

2013 Biltmore Reserve Riesling – Very pale in color and off dry.  There is some bright acid which kept it balanced.  Light body, light flavors and a more delicate wine overall.  I liked it, Cheri not so much.  $17.  Don’t think we would buy it at that price.

2010 Biltmore Chateau Reserve Blanc de Blancs – we mentioned they make several varieties of sparkling wine in the traditional method and this is their finest.  It has some classic toasty notes and tropical fruit undertones.  Very tiny bubbles and a long finish.  This is a quality bubbly and will stand up to a French Champagne.  If you like traditional champagne you’ll like this.  $29.99 and a pretty good value there.

NV Pas de Deux Sparkling Moscato – great nose with honey, pineapple and peach.  After that it was OK.  The flavors were there but it finished with a little bitterness at the back end.  I think I prefer regular Moscato.  The traditional method is not working for me with this grape. $19.99.

2010 Biltmore Reserve Passport – a blend of Sonoma County Cab Sauvignon, Cab Franc and Merlot, this Bordeaux style blend had a nice, deep ruby color.  There was oak, smoke and red fruit on the nose.  The palate added spice, black pepper and toasted oak flavors to the red and black fruits.  It is medium bodied and good.  It’s $24.99, and I wouldn’t call it a screaming value.  You can get a better bottle of Bordeaux for that price.

2008 Antler Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – this fruit was sourced from a vineyard that also sells to Caymus, so the pedigree is there.  It really is a pretty classic, Napa Valley floor cabernet.  Full bodied, there are the expected currant and blackberry flavors.  Smooth tannins finish out what is best described as a luscious wine.  It is really excellent.  It is also $49.99.  It drinks like Napa, and it is priced that way.  If it was $30 I’d say buy a case.  At $50 it is still worth it, it just isn’t a great value there.  Well crafted though.  These winemakers know what they are doing.

NV Biltmore Syrah – ahh, here the bus took a wrong turn.  This wine was very not good.  There was a strange aroma and flavor profile with some savory, herbal and vegetable notes.  The aftertaste reminded us vaguely of cheese.  Yes, I said cheese.  This was strange, and not in a delightfully good way.  Definitely not recommended at any price and certainly not at $16.99.

NV Biltmore Limited Release Malbec – this had a little funk on the nose, and it was very herbaceous.  Some red fruit flavors came through as well.  It had good length and some clearly present tannins, but they worked.  It is different, and not a classic Malbec.  We liked it.  $19.99.  Don’t think I would buy it at that price but it is interesting.

NV Biltmore Cabernet Franc – this is 60% California and 40% North Carolina grapes.    There’s also 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Tempranillo and 1% Syrah in the mix.  Not your average brew but this is DEE-licious.  It has just a beautiful color, darker than your average Cab Franc,  with fruit on the nose.  Medium+ in body the palate features cherry, currant and sweet tannins that flow into a smooth and long finish.  This is just yummy, and one of my favorite wines of the trip.  $16.99 and worth it.  We’d buy this by the case as it is a great value.

Biltmore Malvasia – this is a Madeira grape, and the wine is sweet on the nose, but not as sweet on the palate as you would guess.  It is pale, looking like a fino sherry.  The nose brings honey and apricot and is really nice.  You get some sweetness, then some acid and it dries out, leaving you wanting another sip.  This is really quite good. $17.99 for a half bottle and worth it.

2012 Biltmore Reserve Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – this is the wine we had with dinner at the inn, and represents another of their forays into California.  Dry Creek is know for big cabs, and this fits well.  We were worried about it being so young, but a decanter and some time solved that problem.  It was a little closed at first but opened nicely, displaying a big nose of red and black fruit, with currant, brush and some herbal notes.  This was full bodied, has huge legs and finishes long.  A very satisfying bottle of wine.  $26.99 retail and a steal at that price.  Drinks like a $50+ Sonoma cabernet.

That’s quite a few wines, yet there were many more we did not get to.  We’ll definitely need to return for another visit to finish them off sometime, and maybe we’ll squeeze in some skeet shooting on that visit to the estate (totally unrelated but sounds like fun).   This is quite a winery, with some excellent wines.  We didn’t IMG_0041love them all, but that almost never happens.  If you’re at the Biltmore Estate it is worth a visit.  You’ll find nothing but friendly, knowledgeable people working there, and that is also refreshing.  They seem to be enthusiastic, know a lot about wine and definitely a lot about their own product.  Plan to stop in at the adjoining Bistro for either lunch or dinner as that was excellent too.  More on that in the food review in our next blog.

A votre sante!

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