Everyone stateside has heard of the Vanderbilt family, but you may not know about the family’s Biltmore Estate – the largest privately owned home in the United States. Located in Asheville, NC (arguably the coolest town in the country – debate me in the comments), the Biltmore Estate is not just a gorgeous historical site to see but also a destination for tasting local wines grown on the Biltmore vineyards. Keep reading to explore the Biltmore Estate Winery from where you’re sitting.
The house is a chateau-style mansion from the Gilded Age, built in the late 1800’s. It was largely inspired by homes in Europe, and George Washington Vanderbilt, the original owner, had a particular affinity for the French hence the French Renaissance vibes. No one lives in it today, but it’s still owned by the Vanderbilt descendants and solely operates as museum. It’s absolutely enchanting to walk through, and I imagine the gardens are even more delightful in the height of spring but I wasn’t disappointed in February.
The estate expands beyond just the mansion and the adjacent gardens. It includes pasture land for livestock and, of course, the vineyards for the estate’s winery. Believe it or not George Washing Vanderbilt was very keen on the concepts of “farm-to-table” and “sustainability” before those were trendy words in the green movement. He wanted to be able to live off the land and produced his own meat, dairy, eggs, and wine.
After a full day spent touring the mansion and the grounds, it’s time to head to the winery. A shuttle charters you from the mansion to the winery, which is set in a small little town of shops that has since expanded since the 1800’s to include some restaurants and bars.
Besides the wine, I have to say my favorite part was the entrance to the winery. You enter the double doors into an underground tunnel and suddenly – lights. String lights run from floor to ceiling and creates the most beautiful effect while you walk through the long winding tunnel to the heart of the winery.
We started the official tour by checking out the fermentation tanks and barrels. Some wines undergo fermentation and aging in oak barrels, others in steel. The Biltmore Estate grows many varietals including Chardonnay, Riesling, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.
We then saw where they label the bottles. I remembered from wine tours in Italy how outdated the machinery appears, but these systems are actually state of the art. It seems clunky and unsophisticated, and I always find myself wondering how an engineer somewhere has yet to come up with a more elegant machine, but alas. It’s a tricky system to deal with with a lot of moving parts.
The final part of the tour before the tasting was the most interesting. We learned how the bottles were corked, about their sparkling wines, and a history of how the vineyard grew to where it is today.
North Carolina isn’t prime wine real estate, so when George Washington Vanderbilt started to attempt to grow and produce his own wine, it wasn’t an immediate success. He had to outsource talent from France to help him grow and process the wine into something delicious.
With experts from France taking the reigns, the sparkling wine produced at the estate are made using méthode champenois – the traditional Champagne Method. They are made from the same ratio of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier (or just Chardonnay if it’s a blanc de blanc). Apart from terrior, the sparkling wines produce at the Biltmore Estate are identical to a true Champagne.
And – perhaps the most shocking fact learned on the tour – despite the fact that no one in the world is allowed to label their wine as “Champagne” unless it has come from the Champagne region of France, the country permitted the Biltmore Estate Winery to legally call their sparkling wine Champagne. Can you believe?
Even though the Biltmore Estate Winery was given debatably one of the highest and unique honors a winery could receive, they had such respect for the French method, the country, and their wines that they decided to not take them up on their offer and chose to leave “Champagne” off their labels. How amazing is that?
The Biltmore Estate Winery is extremely generous – their tasting room offers unlimited tastings so you can try literally every type of wine they make – for free! Naturally the line for this tasting room experience is long so I definitely recommend hopping in line at an off-peak time.
We tasted probably ten wines before dinner, but I got a photo of 3 wines shown below. A “Champagne”, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon – a few of their classic bottles.
So how did the wines actually taste? I can honestly say pretty good. I am not keen on other local wines I’ve had. Something about that North Carolina terroir just does not produce the best wines – a reason there aren’t many notable wineries in the southeast of the States. Nonetheless, the Vanderbilts imparted a significant effort to harness the elegance of French wines and managed to achieve something delicious and balanced with their wine.
After tasting a number of sparkling, white, and red wines, my favorites were their sparkling wines (perhaps influenced by the story behind them). You can learn more about their individual wines and even take a fun little quiz on their website to learn more about which of their wines you would prefer – and maybe even schedule a date to take a tour yourself!