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Our California “grape escape”

Posted on 03/09/2015 by Sharon Fenchak

In his book Lady On The Hill, George Vanderbilt's grandson William A.V. Cecil noted that “Asheville was about the same latitude as Gibraltar in the Mediterranean, and with an altitude between 2,100 and 2,500 feet, the fields of the estate would enjoy warm days and cool nights in the summer.”

Asheville does enjoy such conditions at times, but our western North Carolina climate is not nearly as predictable as that of the Mediterranean or other major grape-growing regions.  We have grown and tested numerous varietals over our nearly 40-year history of winemaking.  Only a handful of varietals—Riesling, Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot—have proved well-suited for the distinctive microclimate of the estate, though we continue testing different varietals.

When the weather is right in North Carolina, the fruit produced in our vineyards is exceptional. Beyond our estate vineyards, we look to our local partners and our west coast partners for the quality and consistency of grapes that we use to craft our food-friendly wines here at Biltmore.

Road trip

At least twice a year, Bernard Delille and I schedule extended visits to the west coast to meet with our growing partners. We thought you’d enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at our most recent trip to meet with our partners, tour vineyards, and taste wines along the way.

Beginning in Monterey

Cienega sampleOur first stop is Arroyo Seco in Monterey County. The weather was perfect when we arrived—70 degrees and sunny. In addition to growing grapes, this region is also known for producing artichokes and garlic. What a perfect combination of good wine and good food!

The name Arroyo Seco translates to “dry riverbed,” and it is a newer American Viticultural Area (AVA) in California. Arroyo Seco benefits from a moderate climate and a range of diverse topography elements at differing elevations that keep vines sheltered from brisk winds. The soil is largely composed of sand and loam, with some shale to add a touch of minerality.

Grapes that are difficult to grow in Western North Carolina, including Malbec, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon Blanc thrive in this region. Bernard is very fond of our American Series Sauvignon Blanc, which we handcraft ours to be crisp and refreshing with bright citrus aromas, fresh peach flavors, and an elegant finish—perfect with a wide variety of foods including seafood, salads, and goat cheese.

“Even Pinot Noir, which is difficult to grow under the most ideal circumstances, does well here,” says one of our Arroyo Seco growers.

For the Pinot Noir in our American Series, we honor the grape’s soft and elegant attributes of wild cherry aromas, delicate raspberry flavors, and smooth tannins.

Next stop: Cienega Valley

VineyardsNext on our itinerary is Cienega Valley. More beautiful weather awaits us as we arrive in in this breathtaking region, and winding roads give way to picturesque vineyards surrounded by beautiful mountains.

Outstanding wines have been produced from grapes grown in this area since the 1850s, and Biltmore proudly partners with one of the finest growers in the region. This AVA is located about 25 miles inland from Monterey Bay, and we work with a wonderful grower in the Gabilan Mountains.

Cienega Valley’s maritime climate and rocky soils create more intensity and richness in the grapes. They have a lower yield here, but the flavor develops more fully. Grapes from this region yield wine with more complex fruit, balanced acidity, and a subtle earthiness on the finish.

We source grapes for our American Series Sangiovese from this region, bringing them back to our winery where we carefully create a full-bodied wine with elegant cherry aromas and ripe berry flavors intertwined with hints of chocolate. It's a favorite with many of our Biltmore guests.

Moving on to Mendocino & Lake County

WinemakersFrom Cienega Valley, we head north to Mendocino—one of California’s largest wine-growing regions, with a large number of diverse climates supporting a wide range of varietals. The rain was beginning to roll in so the weather was not as inviting as it had been in Monterey. The surrounding landscape was magnificent, though; all rolling hills with beautiful vineyards and rustic farmland. 

It was great to catch up with Bill Crawford who functions as our eyes and ears on the west coast. We tasted excellent wines from Mendocino, Lake County, and Potter Valley. Lake County is influenced by Clear Lake (California’s largest fresh water lake), which creates a “high and dry” combination of good air quality and vineyards planted above 1,500 feet.

We look to these regions in particular to source our American Series Merlot, which is pleasantly dry and features rich vanilla aromas, bold fruit flavors, and light lingering tannins, plus our Limited Release Zinfandel—a well-balanced wine with jammy flavors marked by hints of spice and a velvety mouth-feel. Like all our American Series and Limited Release wines, they are handcrafted at Biltmore Winery.

South to Sonoma

After leaving Mendocino, we head slightly south (in the rain) to Sonoma where we source outstanding fruit for our Vanderbilt Reserve wines. “Some of the finest American wine grapes come from the vineyards of coastal California,” one of our growers explains. “The terroir—the different combinations of weather and soil in each hill and valley—translate into the distinctive flavors and qualities that characterize the wines of that region.”

Look for our next post as we continue our road trip to visit more of our partners in California’s premiere grape-growing regions.

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