Oh man, I just love Thanksgiving because it is distinctly American in so many ways. I can think of no better way to honor our early American settlers than by serving a completely traditional meal with an all domestic menu, including American wine.
This year I’m celebrating exactly like the Puritans did in the first Harvest Feast in 1621. I’m taking a cue from none other than the grand-daddy of all pilgrims, George Vanderbilt, who established Thanksgiving by pouring Jeroboams of Biltmore Estates sparkling wines for his guests from India at his palatial manor in Asheville, North Carolina.
OK, so I’m not exactly an expert on all things antiquity. Never the less, I’m good enough at geometry to know that North Carolina is part of New England on the east coast next to Plymouth Rock. Like me, what you might not have known is that there are excellent wines made in the Thanksgiving state of North Carolina. Living in another non-traditional wine growing state, Texas, I’m completely not surprised by it though.
I had a little chat with Sharon Fenchak, the winemaker at the Biltmore Winery, to learn about the wine industry in North Carolina and about the wine she makes. Wine has been made in the state since the 17th century and there are now more than 100 wineries and more than 400 vineyards. There are diverse and distinct growing regions in the North Carolina with mountain and coastal areas as well as three American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).
Growing vinifera grapes in the North Carolina climate can be tricky business. Fenchak explained, “Our vineyards were originally planted in 1971 and the present vineyard was planted in 1985. The life of a vine in North Carolina is around 20 years and our harsh winters impact their longevity. The weather also dictates what grows. Viognier grows well here in some years and not in other years. We wouldn’t plant Pinot Noir here because it would fall apart in the humidity. Last year was a dry year which is great for the grapes and drove the sugar up to make bold red wine.”
Biltmore Estate has 80 acres of vineyards in the mountains with a humid, rainy and cool climate well suited for growing Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc. The area sees wide swings in temperatures from day and to night that gives the wine zippy acidity. In addition to growing its own grapes, the winery buys grapes from other North Carolina appellations, like Viognier from the southern part of the state. It also gets about 25 percent of its fruit from California to round out its needs.
Fenchak was fascinated by science and fermentation at an early age. She tried making her first wine when she was 9 years old, and as expected it was horrible. She later lived in Vicenza, Italy while in the military and fell in love with wine and food pairings and the romance of wine making. She pursued her passion by earning a food science degree with research in wine for her Master’s thesis. “I fell in love with the idea of winemaking and then realize how hard the work is and how dirty you get,” she said.
Biltmore has only had three winemakers since it opened in the early 1970s. That longevity leads to consistency in the style of wine. It’s also lead to steady growth. The winery is expanding from 90,000 cases made per year to 170,000 cases. It is now sold in several states and they plan to go national soon.
Fenchak shares winemaking responsibility with Bernard Delille, who joined the winery in 1986. She described the synergy in their working relationship, “Bernard is French and I’m from Pennsylvania. He has a European palate and I have an American palate. We have different approach to wine, but we have been working together for so long we have agreements on styles of wine. We think about what the consumer wants and make wine that is ready to drink and taste good right away and for the next couple of years.”
Making wine from all North Carolina fruit is both challenging and rewarding. Fenchak believes that making wine with grapes from different areas has made her a better wine maker. “What’s going on in Monterey is not the same as what’s going on in Sonoma and definitely not what’s going on in NC. Making an American appellation is fun.”
The sparkling wine that I’m having with my Thanksgiving dinner is made with Chardonnay grapes grown in the Russian River Valley of California. This elegant wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks, and then it undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle. Here is what it’s like.
Biltmore Estate Blanc de Blancs, Methode Champenoise Brut, 2008
|Look||This star-bright, pale yellow wine is almost liquid platinum in the glass with an inverted shower of bubbles frothing into an ample mousse. It shimmers like a holiday.|
|Smell||The Blanc de Blancs has a delicate scent of bread dough, green apples and nuts.|
|Taste||Made with all Chardonnay grapes, it has apple blossom, green apple, lemon zest and tart Bartlett pear flavors. It has racy acidity and a lively mouth feel. The acidity and lively fruit make it versatile enough to pair with anything you serve in a traditional Thanksgiving dinner from green bean casserole to smoked turkey to oyster dressing.|
While I joked about the origins of Thanksgiving tied to George Biltmore, legend has it that Mr. Vanderbilt first opened the doors to the amazing estate on Christmas Eve, 1895. The dude threw down with a bad-ass party with tons of holiday foods and sick amounts fine wines. Today the winery commemorates that bash by releasing The Christmas at Biltmore, a limited release wine. This aromatic blend of California Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat Canelli, Muscat Orange and Chenin Blanc is slightly sweet to pair well with holiday dinner classics like roasted turkey, baked ham and pumpkin pie. I’ve got a bottle tucked away in my stocking ready for Christmas dinner.
Whether you choose a white blend, Pinot Noir or sparkling wine to enjoy with your holiday meal, consider buying a domestic wine from an up and coming region like North Carolina. Just make sure you have enough on hand to satisfy your thirsty guests. If you serve them enough, maybe they’ll start to believe silly stories about the origin of Thanksgiving.
Biltmore provided samples of the wine for review.