My two favorite NC-only wines from Biltmore Estate

My two favorite NC-only wines from Biltmore Estate

Recently I drove down the Blue Ridge Mountains to Highland, NC and from there, to two of the northernmost wineries in Georgia. On the way I stopped at Biltmore Palace (hey, it is what it is) outside Asheville, NC and tasted their (few) estate fruit wines.

Biltmore Estate is the most-visited winery in the country. They have a large product line but about 90% of it is based on West Coast grapes. They have their own estate vineyard planted to the two cabernets and chardonnay, and they’re expanding their plantings, but grape growing is risky and unreliable at Biltmore and even elsewhere in North Carolina, so they base most of their production on the much larger, and more reliably available, vineyards in California. To their credit, they do a number of wines with AVA-specific labels like Russian River Valley pinot noir and Dry Creek Valley cabernet sauvignon.

"My other house is a Hermitage."

“My other house is a Hermitage.”

I thought it was pointless to taste and review West Coast wines since that’s not what this website/blog is about; everyone knows about those wines and wine regions, but wines of the East Coast and

Midwest are frequently ignored or overlooked. Accordingly, I asked to taste only the wines made exclusively from North Carolina grapes…and was pleasantly surprised by the contrast with their West Coast wines.

  • Biltmore Estate Chateau Reserve Blanc de Blancs methode champenoise 2011 North Carolina: 100% estate grown chardonnay, 12-24 months on the lees. The nose was toasty with lemon cream notes, with fine mousse; classy. On the palate, dry, but also freshly fruity with apple and pear notes. Not as high acid as Champagne, closer to Cava in style, but a high-end Cava, and impressively better than the sparkling wines Biltmore offered from California single AVAs, since those were even lower in acid. Pretty impressive for chardonnay blanc de blancs from this far south.
  • Biltmore Estate Reserve Cabernet Franc 2014 North Carolina: This was classic East Coast cabernet franc, very stylish and true to the varietal. On the nose, lovely fragrant cherries. On the palate, a round and smooth texture balanced by bright cherry/berry flavors, elegantly knit together with moderate oak.
  • Biltmore Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 North Carolina: While cabernet sauvignon often makes impressive wine in the Yadkin Valley of the state, this one is much like many Virginia cabernets on clay soil; thin, weedy and dilute with edgy tannins. Considering this came from the same vineyard and vintage as the previous wine, it’s a telling contrast. Despite the fact that cabernet franc is one parent of cabernet sauvignon, the vines prefer different soil types (clay and limestone for the franc, and well-drained granite-based soils for the sauvignon), and the wines will show it.  Perhaps in a hot year (2014 was a cool one) the cab. sauv. might perform better, but why grow a variety that pales next to another one in the same site, just because it has a trendy name?

Two days later, kindly driven by a friend, we descended from the Blue Ridge near Highland, NC  arriving at Tiger Mountain Vineyards in Tiger, GA. Tiger Mountain is unusual for wineries in the area in that they grow and produce mostly vinifera grapes and wine, except for norton, and are proudly “Georgia Grown.” I had tasted a range of their wines about a decade ago, and it was very hit-and-miss, so I was pleased to find a marked improvement in quality and its consistency across the line. Some wines (rose, tannat and malbec) were sold out (total production: 1,500-2,000 cases). The winery is owned by four native Georgians. White wines were fresh and fruity, and the reds were largely well-balanced with fruit, acid and oak.  Favorites:

  • Tiger Mountain “White Tiger” 2015, Georgia: A blend of 75% viognier and 25% petit manseng. The nose is bright with ample tropical fruit, and the palate is zesty, also with lots of bright tropical and some citrus fruit, not entirely dry but with well-balanced acidity. Fun and original, versatile.
  • Tiger Mountain Cabernet Franc 2014, Georgia: The nose is full of cherry and spice, clean and fresh, and although the oak is evident, it doesn’t overpower the fruit. On the palate, the wine is rich, with solid black cherry, a hint of black pepper and well-integrated oak. Stylish in a more full-bodied way than the Biltmore cabernet franc.
  • Tiger Mountain Rabun Red NV, Georgia: Normally I’m not a fan of red blends with more than 10% norton as it tends to overpower the blend with its acid and assertive character. In this case, I was impressed that a blend with 40%(!) norton could be as elegant as this, with lots of fresh and dried fruit aromas and flavors, and exotic spices. The other grapes in the blend are cabernet franc, malbec, mourvedre and tannat. On the palate, this wine is rich and lively, with red and black fruits, and the norton well-integrated in the background, giving a bass earthy note on the finish. Fun, versatile and original.
  • Tiger Mountain Norton 2012 Georgia: This is a fine example of why the best dry nortons should be held back a few years so they can lose the malic acid edge and “bubblegum” aromas of their youth. On the nose, mature aromas of smoke, earth and dried red fruits with spice. On the palate, classic spicy damson plum and some pepper. A classy norton.
Norton vines on GDC training at Tiger Mtn. Vineyards, N. Georgia

Norton vines on GDC training at Tiger Mtn. Vineyards, N. Georgia

On the way back to North Carolina, we stopped at 12 Spies Vineyard (per Genesis) Vineyards in Rabun Gap. As is often the case, this was a vineyard that became a winery. They grow the legal one acre minimum to qualify as a farm winery, but bring in West Coast fruit as well as buying grapes from other Georgia wineries. Favorites:

  • 12 Spies Cabernet Franc 2014, Georgia: Nose: fragrant red cherry, such as you’d find in the Finger Lakes. On the palate: dry, fresh red cherry and black pepper. Stylish, surprisingly cool-climate.
  • 12 Spies Red Barn Cabernet Sauvignon 2013: Nose of fresh, fragrant cassis: very classic for the pure grape. Palate is light but dry, due to a cool vintage, but the tannins are smooth. This is a great choice for a summertime red wine if you can stand drinking cabernet under 14% alcohol and without huge oak.
  • 12 Spies Temptation Traminette 2014: The nose is a lovely, fresh classic gewürztraminer-like with rose, spice and lychee. On the palate, the wine is fruity with good acid balance, typical varietal character, and pleasingly dry (<1% residual sugar). Very true varietal character and good for matching with food.