Even though Biltmore head winemaker Bernard Delille has made his home in Asheville, North Carolina for 26 years, his French accent is as dense as the day that he left Lyon. He hasn't made many other concessions to living in the South either. When asked if he follows the local religion of college sports, he offers a rueful but charming shake of his head. And when asked if he enjoys the iconic vinegary barbecue of his adopted home he once again shakes his head and with a smile, he very quietly, very politely, says "No, it kills the wine."
It only seems fitting that a Frenchman head up the winemaking at Biltmore. (Delille is the second winemaker at the estate, and the second Frenchman.) The winery resides on the property of the Biltmore Estate which was the creation of George W. Vanderbilt. An avid traveler, Vanderbilt commissioned Richard Morris Hunt to design the 250-room French Renaissance chateau which was opened to friends and family on Christmas Eve 1895.
Vanderbilt did not include a vineyard in the original plans, but was an avid wine collector who would cart cases home from his travels abroad.
In 1971 the first grapes were planted on the estate and the original dairy barn was converted into a modern winemaking facility in 1985. Today there are 95 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Riesling, Chardonnay and Viogner. Biltmore ranks in the top 1% of the U.S. wine industry and produces nearly 250,000 cases of wine annually using both estate grown fruit as well as grapes sourced from partners in other winemaking regions, including Monterey, the Russian River Valley, Mendocino and yes, the Napa Valley.
Biltmore has also been influential in the sometimes trial and error development of an untried wine region. Vanderbilt heir William Cecil consulted with agricultural experts at NC State University, Cornell and the University of California at Davis. "A lot of work and experimentation was done at Biltmore" explains Delille. The particular challenges faced in North Carolina according to Delille? "Spring frost, winter kill and the humidity. There is a learning curve. But patience is my middle name."
Patience has paid off and Biltmore creates a number of award winning wines. When Delille was in New York recently, we tasted through an array from the current range:
Biltmore Estates Blanc de Blancs Méthode Champenoise — Brut, 2007
Slightly floral with notes of yeast, lemon, apricot, honey and lime, with tiny bubbles and great acidity.
Biltmore Reserve Chardonnay (Un-oaked), Sonoma County, 2010
Great acidity, slightly buttery, with pear, guava and pineappley notes.
Biltmore Reserve Chardonnay, North Carolina, 2010
Fruit forward with good acidity, notes of butter, lemon and wild strawberry
Biltmore Reserve Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, 2009
Full bodied with balance and depth, notes of cherry, pepper and a touch of oak
Biltmore Century Red Wine NV American
Great tannins and structure, with oak and plummy notes
Biltmore Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley, 2010
Fruit forward and full bodied with good structure and tannins. Hints of red berries and dried herbs.
Biltmore Century White Wine NV American
Not quite a dessert wine, but has a great balance of sweetness and acidity with lime, lemon and honeydew.