The winery, housed in a former dairy, has been open to the public since 1985 and produces 1.2-1.4 million bottles of wine per year, sold there at the winery, and at restaurants and retailers throughout the United States like Ingles Markets.
|Sharon Fenchak (winemaker) and Bernard Delille (wine master) of Biltmore Wines|
About seven years ago I interviewed Sharon Fenchak, Biltmore's winemaker, on the "Ingles Information Aisle" radio show (Saturday mornings on WWNC 570am at 8:05amET) and we subsequently became good friends. Sharon and I both have a nutrition education background, but while I went into dietetics and human nutrition; she pursued food science. Sharon started her wine making career at wineries in Georgia and has been a wine maker at Biltmore since 1999. Sharon's boss is wine master of Biltmore Winery, Bernard Delille.
In the past I'd visited the winery tasting room to sample wines and even been shown around the production areas by Sharon. Walk from the winery up the steep sloping path to the Inn on the Biltmore Estate and you can see a few rows of grape vines but I had heard about more acreage of vines on another part of the Estate.
Each time I drive onto the Biltmore Estate it feels like I am going back in time, a century and hundreds of miles from downtown Asheville. The speed limit and winding roads forces me to slow down and I find myself taking a deep breath and relaxing to notice bright green fields and slight changes in the color of the vegetation, signaling that fall is coming to Western North Carolina. I parked in the parking lots adjacent to Antler Hill Village and the winery. In the distance, across the fields, I can almost see a bridge that crosses the French Broad River.
|Bridge at Biltmore Estate|
If you were to walk along the walking and biking trail that runs alongside the French Broad River you'd see that bridge is protected by high locked gates at either ends. A prominently displayed sign warns "No Guest Beyond This Point". It reminds me a bit of the movie "Jurassic Park". What little you can see of the other side of the river, across the bridge, looks to be dark, heavily wooded and slightly forbidding. This, I learned was the way to the vineyards.
The "Vine to Wine" tour provided me with access to this part of the Estate, lots of great information about the process of producing Biltmore wines, a behind the scenes tour of the winery, and generous wine sampling at each stop and at the conclusion of the winery tour. After boarding the small van at the winery, our group is driven down a gravel road. We stopped at the bridge while the gate is unlocked and then firmly closed behind us. Once across the bridge we took a left on a gravel road to parallel the river. We are now surrounded by woods and then slowly the van climbed a hill, until we began to see fields of grape vines, but no Jurassic Park dinosaurs. This is the more agricultural part of the Estate, some 4000 acres, where most of the grape vines are located. Our tour guide, Laura Morgan, explained that the sandy loam characteristics of the soil (terroir) of this part of the estate is very reminiscent of soil quality in the Bordeaux region of France so often they can grow the same types of grapes.
|Chardonnay grape vines at Biltmore Estate vineyard - lake helps moderate temperatures and protect vines from freezing temperatures.|
The first stop is at a rise overlooking 40 acres of Chardonnay vines that slope down to a lake. Our guide explained that if the air drops to freezing in early Spring when the new buds on the grapes wines are especially vulnerable, wind blowing across the warmer water in the lake can act to moderate the temperatures and protect new buds."...even 1 or 2 degrees can make a difference." The Chardonnay grapes have all been harvested but Laura found some bunches on the ground and passed them around for us to sample.
|Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes at Biltmore Estate vineyards|
In order to supply their customers and the many visitors to the winery and as insurance against weather and disease, the Cecil family and the wine master decided in the 1980's to have partner vineyards where they could purchase grapes or the pressed juice of the grapes suitable for making wine. Those relationships continue to this day and Bernard and Sharon regularly visit their partner vineyards in North Carolina, Washington, Oregon and California to check on harvests and purchase additional grapes or varieties that they cannot grow on the Estate. These grapes or the juice of the grapes are transported to the Biltmore winery for bottling under the carefully and expertly trained eyes and palate of Sharon and Bernard. It's a relatively small staff that cares for the vineyard, harvests the wine and operates the winery and bottles the wide selection of Biltmore wines including the Reserve and Antler Hill wines that you can buy at Ingles Markets.
(Note: A special thanks to Biltmore Company/Biltmore Wines for complimentary tickets to the "Vine to Wine" tour for the purpose of writing this blog.)