No trip to North Carolina is complete without a visit to the Biltmore Estate in Ashville — especially during the holiday season, when the mansion is bedecked with sparkling lights, and the estate’s winery releases a bottling with a special Christmas label.
The mansion, the largest privately owned house in the United States — with 178,926 square feet of floor space and 135,280 square feet of living area — was built by George Washington Vanderbilt II over a six-year period beginning in 1889. There are 250 rooms.
Various tours of the estate are offered, and a new exhibition, “The Vanderbilts at Home and Abroad,” provides an intimate look at the family that amassed a fortune large enough to be able to construct this nod to the Gilded Age, with its magnificent gardens and other “amenities,” including a working winery.
Originally the estate’s dairy barn, the Antler Hill Village & Winery offers complimentary tasting of Biltmore’s award-winning wines.
In 1971, George Vanderbilt’s grandson, William Cecil, first experimented with winemaking at Biltmore. From a harvest of French-American hybrid grapes planted within sight of Biltmore House, the inaugural vintage was bottled in the estate conservatory.
Unsatisfied with the wine — it would later be dubbed “the crush of horror” — Cecil sought advice from winemaking experts at the University of California at Davis. Although the researchers were uncertain that vinifera cultivation was truly possible in western North Carolina because of general growing conditions in the region, they worked closely with Cecil to suggest new advances in grape-growing methods and technology.
Cecil continued his effort to achieve his dream of making wine at Biltmore by moving the vineyard to the west side of the estate and expanding to 150 acres of vinifera grapes. In 1977, he traveled to France to persuade sixth-generation French winemaster Philippe Jourdain to oversee the development of Biltmore wines and help build the future of what would become the Biltmore Estate Wine Company.
In the decades since, Biltmore has grown and tested numerous varietals. Six of them — Riesling, Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot — have proven to be particularly well-suited for the western North Carolina terroir and the microclimate of the estate.
In an effort to expand its portfolio and consistently craft the highest quality wine possible, Biltmore also partners with select growers in North Carolina, Washington state and California, including Sonoma and Napa.
Winemakers Bernard Delille and Sharon Fenchak, despite their distinctly different backgrounds, share a common approach to winemaking as they create high-quality wines that are true to varietal character as well as food-friendly. Together, they have developed an outstanding portfolio of award-winning wines worthy of the finest Vanderbilt traditions of taste and style.
When asked to name his favorite wine, Delille says, “The one I’m drinking right now!” A native of France, he joined the Biltmore Wine Company as assistant winemaker in 1986, rising to the position of winemaster in 1991. He is especially fond of sparkling wines, and enjoys crafting them according to the traditional méthode champenoise.
Delille’s background includes a master’s degree in biochemistry and certificates in microbiology and enology from the Faculty of Science in Lyon, France. Prior to joining Biltmore, he was a winemaker in the Pyrenees Atlantiques region.
Fenchak’s passion for winemaking brought her to Biltmore in 1999, and she attained winemaker status in 2003. In addition to creating fine wines, she is also involved in research and development for new grape-growing technology and production methods.
“As Biltmore wines continue to grow,” Fenchal says, “I hope to continue building the tradition of the Biltmore brand among wine enthusiasts locally, nationally and globally.”
Before Biltmore, Fenchal crafted wines for two different wineries in Georgia. The Pennsylvania native holds a master’s degree in food science from the University of Georgia, a bachelor’s degree in food science from Penn State University, and has served in both the U.S. Army and the Army Reserves. She became interested in wine while stationed in Vicenza, Italy.
Each holiday season, Biltmore produces what has become a favorite wine among the estate’s followers — one adorned with a label depicting a holiday scene. The 2014 Christmas at Biltmore White Wine (a semi-sweet wine) features the artwork of Terry Owensby of Swannanoa, N.C., selected in an annual contest conducted by Biltmore.
“This was my second year of entering the wine label contest,” Owensby said, “and my painting, ‘Enchanted Christmas,’ captures the feeling of the holidays at Biltmore. I have been painting 20-plus years as a hobby. I love Biltmore. As a kid in grammar school, we would take field trips there.”
A field trip to Biltmore — to explore the mansion, stroll the grounds and sample some excellent wines — should be added to any wine lover’s “Holiday To Do” list.