Wine for the Holidays: America’s Most-Visited Winery
There are plenty of people who do exactly what they’re told. Who follow all of the rules. Who “know their place” from birth to death. The type of people who do not see a bullfighter’s red cape when someone tells them they cannot or may not do something.
Joe is not one of those people. And neither am I.
Often in younger years this was probably much to our detriment. For me, it was nearly impossible to gain my mother’s approval. So I became very good at trying to piss her off. If she said “You will NOT do so-and-so” well, as she can tell you, my reaction would be “I’m damned well going to do it.”
Even though we have matured enough through the years to no longer need to “prove” no one is going to tell us what to do — well most of the time, anyway — we feel a special affinity for those who followed the same path in their youth.
There was a moment in our conversation when I asked winemaker Sharon Fenchak, why, right after high school, she joined the military.
“Because my mother forbade it,” she said.
Then and there we knew we had just met a kindred spirit.
Winemaker – Sharon Fenchak
Sharon Fenchak makes wine at the most-visited winery in the United States. No, it’s not it Napa. Or Sonoma. Or Paso Robles. Or anywhere in Oregon or Washington State. In fact, it’s not even on the West Coast. The most-visited American winery, with over 650,000 visitors every year is in Asheville, North Carolina. What began as a country retreat and grew into America’s Largest Home was officially opened to visitors in 1895.
From its days as a 250-room French chateau at the end of the 19th century, Biltmore was the vision of George W. Vanderbilt. The grandson of “The Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, an entrepreneur who founded a family fortune in shipping and railroads, George Vanderbilt favored art over industry. He studied language, architecture and history, and was as thoughtful a collector of wine as he was of books and works of art.
Vanderbilt imagined that Biltmore would someday represent lush gardens and sweeping vistas, herds of healthy livestock and a wonderful place for family and friends to visit and enjoy the highest standards of hospitality, luxury and attention to the smallest detail.
Sharon Fenchak is slight of build, with long brown hair and barely a speck of make-up. She still has the appearance of a no-nonsense military operative who could hold her own against larger male combatants. Very poised and reserved.
After her time in the military, which took her to one of the oldest wine regions in the world – Italy, Fenchak earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in food science from Penn State and the University of Georgia, respectively. She joined Biltmore in 1999, after working as Assistant Winemaker at two different Georgia wineries.
“All the best things in life are fermented,” she says, describing her first stab at winemaking at age 9.
The food arrives and it’s time to get down to business, and for Fenchak this is the obviously the best part. Her face softens. Razor-sharp wit combines with charm and she describes the wines. We tasted nine different Biltmore wines with her – you can imagine how the tasting turned quite convivial! And while we enjoyed all of those sampled, we thought we’d mention a few of our favorites.
Biltmore Estate® Méthode Champenoise Blanc de Blancs–Brut
Crisp and refreshing, the wine is slightly floral with notes of lemon zest and apricot. These tiny bubbles are 13.1 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) and made in the traditional méthode champenoise. A great value alternative to fancy French champagne, this pleasant sparkling wine is priced between $20-25, depending on retailer.
Pairing: While dining at Houston’s Reef, we paired this with James Beard Award Nominee Chef Bryan Caswell’s Crab Cake with Taqueria Style Pickled Vinaigrette. Other suggested pairings include crawfish étoufée, oysters on the half-shell or some tasty bleu cheese.
2008 Biltmore Reserve® North Carolina Chardonnay
North Carolina, you ask? Yes ma’am! This is 99% Chardonnay and 1% Riesling, with 87% of the fruit sourced from Biltmore’s own estate vineyards. Fenchak tells us that the grapes love North Carolina weather – the drought gets the BRIX up to 20 and along comes a rainstorm which takes it back down to 19. Barrel fermented in 50% French and 50% American Oak, about half the wine goes through malolactic fermentation. Overall residual sugar in this vintage is 0.9% with a 13.2% ABV. Tropical fruit and coconut on the nose, this wine is nicely balanced with flavors of pear, vanilla, pineapple and oak, with a hint of butter. Another great value priced at $14.99.
Pairing: Heavenly with steamed mussels, grilled scallops or shrimp, this also works well with fettuccine Alfredo.
Biltmore® Century White Wine NV* American
The first thing you notice about this wine is the beautifully etched bottle, depicting the historic Biltmore House. The name honors the Biltmore 100-year anniversary “and enduring legacy of gracious hospitality.”
We tasted the 2008 vintage, but law does not permit those wines labeled with an “American” appellation to carry a vintage on the label. This is a blend of Gewurztraminer, Muscat Canelli, Riesling and Malvasia with grapes sourced from Mendocino and Monterey, California and the Washington’s Yakima Valley AVA, fermented in stainless steel tanks.
Fresh mint, rose and lychee aromas on the nose are followed by hints of raspberry and orange on the palate. Winemaker’s notes call this and its sister Biltmore® Century Red “sweet” wines. While technically correct, we notice the shelf-talkers in our local grocery tend to confuse the Texas crowd. We found this shelved with white zinfandel last time we picked up a few bottles for our everyday house wine. Believe me, it was mis-shelved. It’s a very refreshing white that tastes nothing like the trendy stuff from the 80s. The Biltmore® Century Red is a medium-bodied blend of Sangiovese and Merlot with aromas of red currant and strawberry. Both great values, suggested retail for each is $15.99
Pairing: We suggest pairing the white with spicy Asian foods and the red is a perfect complement to Southwest dishes or pasta Bolognese.
2006 Antler Hill Napa Valley Syrah
Unlike most of the Biltmore wines, the Antler Hill collection wines are not crafted and bottled at the North Carolina Biltmore Estate, but in concert with Biltmore’s small partner vineyards in California, while still under the direction of Fenchak and Head Winemaker Bernard Delille. 100% Syrah barrel-aged in French and American oak for 18-20 months, this dark-cherry colored wine offers a complex nose of smoke, spices, vanilla and oak. Well-balanced tannins, this big boy brings hints of blackberry, wild cherry and plum on the palate. Named for the hill where the Inn on Biltmore Estate stands this wine is also featured on the menu. Only 400 cases made, this Syrah is priced at $35.
Pairing: At 15.6% alcohol by volume this is a wine made for hearty masculine game or decadent dark chocolate. Try pairing it with venison, pheasant or sharp Beaufort cheese.
Biltmore® Pas de Deux Méthode Champenoise – Sec
Another of the Biltmore Estate Sparkling Collection, this California-sourced 100% Muscat Canelli comes in a bright pink-foiled bottle – perfect for bridesmaid luncheons, bachelorette parties or Girls Night Out. It is wonderfully aromatic with scents of whipped lemon meringue, tangerine, orange blossom and honey. Very fine bubbles tickle the nose, and flavors of wild strawberry and lemon delight the mouth.
Be sure to serve this well-chilled, ideally at 40-45°F (4.5 – 7°C). Suggested retail $18.99
Pairing: Perfect as an apertif, we also suggest pairing with lightly sweeter fare like coconut shrimp, lobster bisque, strawberry cheesecake or pumpkin pie.
To find Biltmore wines in your area, visit the Biltmore website and enter your zip code. The Biltmore on-line shopping site will allow you to order wine alone as well as wine and food gift baskets or other Christmas treasures.
Christmas at the Biltmore
Now through January 2, guests can enjoy touring America’s largest home decorated in the spirit of Christmas with “dozens of Christmas trees, hundreds of wreaths, bows, and poinsettias, miles of evergreen garland, and thousands of ornaments.”
Christmas at Biltmore during the daytime includes access to Biltmore House, the Gardens and Antler Hill Village & Winery. The village links to the Winery, where visitors may take a complimentary guided tour culminating with a complimentary wine tasting. You’ll also find Jolly ole Saint Nick at the Antler Hill Barn on Saturday and Sunday from 12:30 p.m.–4:30 p.m. through December 19.
Guests can also take a Candelight Tour. For more information on Christmas at Biltmore, visit Christmas.Biltmore.com
The Biltmore Estate is open year ’round and we look forward to visiting it one day soon. For now, we’re content to pick up a few bottles of their wine to enjoy this holiday season.