What is the largest and most visited winery in the United States?
It's the Biltmore Estate Winery in Asheville, N.C.
Surprised? I was. Then I visited the Biltmore Estate, toured its impressive, 450-room "house," ate lunch in the Stable Café and tasted the locally made wines.
The 8,000-acre estate is an architectural and environmental shrine to 19th-century American ingenuity. (Biltmore bottle labels carry the motto "An American legacy and tradition.") Built in 1895 by George W. Vanderbilt, the French chateau boasted all the modern amenities of the time, including 350 guest rooms, 43 bathrooms, a swimming pool, gymnasium and lavish dining rooms. Guests lounged on balconies with sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Today, the estate remains a family-run business open to the public for all-year lodging, leisure, recreation, shopping and entertainment activities. (To learn more go to www.biltmore.com.)
The Antler Hill Village winery is situated nearby and attracts more than 1.1 million visitors annually. A free tasting is included in the $55 ticket price to the Biltmore House and grounds. On the February day I visited, the temperature reached a winter-defying 70 degrees, and I exulted over being offered a private tasting with Hospitality Wine Hostess Laura Ross.
Ross explained that while Vanderbilt filled his cellar with French wines, it wasn't until the 1970s that his grandson, William Cecil, planted the estate's original 30 acres of vineyards of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
In 2018, under the direction of winemaker Sharon Fenchak, The Biltmore Wine Company winery sold more than 150,000 cases.
Most North Carolina bottlings are moderately priced in the $13 to $20 range, and the winery ships directly to consumers in 35 states, including Massachusetts.
Here are tasting notes on the wines I sampled.
Limited Release Sauvignon Blanc, $19: Aged in oak. Creamy more than crispy, and clean. Pronounced apple and lime traits. Easy drinking. Dry finish.
Reserve Chardonnay North Carolina, $24: The beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains shines through on this appealing white made from estate-grown grapes. Buttery with ripe apple, pear and melon fruit. Closes softly with a touch of vanilla.
Limited Release Muscat Canelli, $17: This semisweet white, derived from Italy's Moscato di Canelli grape, caught me by surprise for its luscious tropical fruit and brightness. A good match for Asian and Mexican foods.
Chenin Blanc, $13: Crafted in a semisweet style, this did not capture my dry, Loire Valley fancy. Still, it was floral and easy drinking.
Sangiovese, $17: Produced at the winery from California grapes, this is a decent representation of Italy's No. 1 varietal. Upfront cherry and raspberry fruit and bright acidity lead to a dry finish. A good pizza and pasta wine.
Reserve Cabernet Franc North Carolina, $35: An impressive Bordeaux varietal made from estate grapes. It expresses red-berry power and complex punch on a velvety frame. Mr. Vanderbilt would be proud to call this his own.
Limited Release Malbec, $24: It's easy to see why this was the Biltmore's top-selling wine in 2018. Juicy and flavorful, it hits all the right notes of plum, blueberry and peppery spices. Grapes are sourced from California.
Merlot, $15: Fruit from California, North Carolina and Washington state partner in this delightful drink delivering dark-berry and wild herb flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon (15 percent) firms up the medium-bodied structure. Polished tannins and a nice, dry finish.
Cabernet Sauvignon, $19: Lighter than a full-bodied Cab, it nonetheless has a satisfying edge that makes it a an everyday table wine for pork and beef barbecue and grilled burgers.