Apr 132012
 

Bernard DeLilleAmerica’s most visited winery isn’t in Napa. It isn’t even in California. Rather, with 600,000 guests annually, the imposing Biltmore Estate can be found in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, NC. With a driveway measured in miles (glad I don’t have to shovel it), the 1895 mansion was ahead of its time with electric lighting and an elevator and continues to be forward-thinking in its emphasis on being a self-sustaining estate. In this regard, the on-premise dairy was replaced with a winery in 1985.

Growing grapes in North Carolina is not an easy task. The humid climate wreaks havoc in the vineyard, encouraging the growth of mildew. Accordingly, healthy grapes at harvest are not a given. Despite these less than favorable conditions, Bernard DeLille has made wine at the Biltmore Estate for over 25 years.

The Burgundy-trained winemaker responded to an advertisement in 1986, intrigued by the opportunity to make wine in the U.S. Although he was working in Madiran and Jurançon (both in southwest France) at the time, DeLille welcomed the opportunity to produce wines without the rigid constraints of France’s appellation system. Accordingly, he packed up his wife, two children and their belongings and headed to North Carolina to begin his new position. Joining the staff under the direction of Philippe Jourdain, by 1991, he was promoted to the position of winemaker.

Given the challenges that North Carolina presents, along with the need to increase production, Biltmore Estate now sources grapes from California for many of its wines. In order to comply with U.S. regulations, wine production for these wines takes place in California. However, the estate vineyards have not been abandoned; DeLille will continue to make wines at home as well. In this regard, consumers can choose from two Blanc de blanc sparklers – one from North Carolina and the other from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. Two still Chardonnays are also similarly produced (Sonoma County and North Carolina). Not surprisingly, their red wine production centers on California.

A recent luncheon at New York’s Lincoln Restaurant provided members of the wine media to become acquainted with a selection of the Biltmore’s wines, including side by side tastings of the two sparklers and the two Chardonnays.

This new approach to winemaking has provided DeLille with many rewards. Yet, he admits that it can be complicated to keep up with the need to make wine in two different facilities, separated by an entire continent. But, on the whole, DeLille seems to have taken well to the balancing act required.

I wish I could say the same of the restaurant’s servers. In clearing the flutes and white wine stemware, both DeLille  and I were the recipients of a Chardonnay shower. Luckily, as a veteran journalist, I was wearing black and was consequently, soggy, but not visably stained.

All in all, it was a nice introduction to these wines, or rather, re-introduction, as I had visited the Biltmore Estate back in 1997 as a belated honeymoon. Thus, the winery has a special place in my heart and I appreciated the changes being made in expanding the Biltmore Estate’s range of wines.

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