The Final Day of Harvest 2014

November 5, 2014 § Leave a comment

November 5th, 2014

Today we pick the last lot of grapes – a late harvest Vidal Blanc from Catesby Vineyard.  That marks 37 separate picks for the season, and over 60 sublots of wine either fermenting or now aging in our cellar.  It’s been our largest harvest yet (not to mention our longest, running from September 1st until today, November 5th), and the quality of fruit has been fantastic.  It’ll be a bit sad to see these fermentations end.

We finally got our act together and made harvest shirts!

We finally got our act together and made harvest shirts!

The 2014 vintage in Virginia will likely be marked by several things: (1) the vine damage caused by the unusually cold temperatures in the late winter, (2) fairly wet but healthy Spring and early Summer, (3) a coooooooool late summer leading into fall, keeping ripening at a moderate pace but also allowing for a better alcohol / ripeness / acidity balance than we generally see in Virginia, and (4) some wonderful weeks in September and October that allowed for a full (albeit late) ripening of all varieties.  Additionally, at Sunset Hills, it will be marked by hail damage that we received at Shenandoah Springs on July 2nd.   This did not affect any final wine quality but did affect our yields.

Viognier, Estate Vineyard #1

Viognier, Estate Vineyard #1

The whites came in, for the most part, spread out over all of September.  Fruit quality here was exceptional, with very ripe flavors and moderate must weights, which is especially important for our Viognier blocks and some of our smaller-berried Chardonnay clones.  Thanks to the great weather we were able to pick at a (relatively) moderate pace and were not forced into any speed pickings, which allows for great quality control both in the vineyard and cellar.  We tried a number of new things this year: further experiments with press wines, more barrel fermentations, cordoning off vineyard blocks into sub-blocks, et cetera.  We tend to get a little geeky.

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Laying out Vidal Blanc clusters for drying – a new experiment this year.

The only snag in harvest was a huge rain on October 15th, which we chose to avoid as much as possible by bringing in the bulk of our Cab Franc and Petit Verdot just prior to.  Anything hanging after that was in it for the long haul and, thankfully, paid off immensely – the last week of harvest we found ourselves picking uber-ripe Cabernet Franc from our estate, with a density and extraction more akin to that of 2010 (although these grapes got to those end points in much different ways), as well as some blockbuster Petit Verdot.  We will have a wide range of styles for our reds – ripe and fruit forward with moderate alcohol, and big, dense, and masculine.  Blending will be very important.

Pumping over a bin of Cab Franc.

Pumping over a bin of Cab Franc.

Today, the last day of harvest, we are picking our late harvest Vidal.  This is a wine we’ve attempted to make every year since 2009, but unfortunately have succeeded at only twice (2009 and 2010), because we sometimes struggle to get enough noble rot in our vineyards.  This is the longest we’ve ever let Vidal hang and I’m very excited at the level of botrytis and ripeness within the vineyard.  We will be pressing tomorrow and then will get a better idea of whether it was a success.

Traminette vines in the fall - just before the leaves drop

Traminette vines in the fall – just before the leaves drop

Today, though, is a bit bittersweet for me.  I’m glad to see the light at the end of the tunnel, to have my weekends back, to enjoy the fall in Virginia, but I’m also always sad when we finish.  Luckily, we’ve got our work cut out for ourselves in the elevage of these wines, so really it never stops.

A Tasting of the Wines in the October / November 2014 Shipment

September 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Stellar wines this go-round!

Sunset Hills Vineyard 2013 Reserve Chardonnay – Seeing as how we don’t make very much of this wine on any given year, it’s been quite a while since we’ve had any bottles to sell.  Seven months, to be exact.  And as such you can imagine we’re very excited to be releasing the 2013 vintage.  It’s been a long time coming, but we always like to hold onto our Reserve Chardonnay for an October or November release, as it generally prefers some time in bottle (and not to mention it’s such a great Thanksgiving wine).

The 2013 vintage is a blend of clone 17 fruit from our Shenandoah Springs Vineyard, as well as the “upper” block of Estate Vineyard #1 – both nice, rich, very-ripe expressions of the grape.  These Chardonnays are entirely fermented and aged in French oak (about 20% new), with our standard lees stirring winter and spring, giving the wine wonderful vanilla, coconut, cream, and butterscotch qualities.  Behind that stands exotic ripe fruit, a nice round mouthfeel, and a dashing of oak tannins.  This wine is released specifically for the club shipment.


Sunset Hills Vineyard 2013 Cabernet Franc – The 2013 Cabernet Franc marks our second bottling of this wine as a vineyard designate, produced entirely from fruit off our Shenandoah Springs Vineyard.  This wine is deeper and darker, with more extraction, than what was made from the 2012 harvest – this is a result of adjustments in pruning and cropload, as well as seasonal differences, and some slight adjustments in the winery (more post-fermentation maceration, warmer fermentation temperatures, a bit more oak, even a splash of Tannat).

One of our more dense, earthy vintages of Cabernet Franc to be released since 2009.  Like the Reserve Chardonnay, this wine is just now being released to the club members.










Living Up To Our Name

September 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

We had an amazing late summer sunset the other night.  I had to share.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

As We Gain Clarity on the 2013 Reds

May 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

May 28th, 2014

We are through initial tastings and have moved toward blending for many of our 2013 red wines, and as such the vintage itself has been coming into focus more and more. The 2013 vintage was often quite confusing for us, in that we saw considerably variation in fruit from different vineyard blocks, and it was not always as predictable as in pervious years. Additionally, we couldn’t make up our minds about which blocks would be standouts – sometimes we’d bring in a Merlot, for example, that seemed so promising as fruit in the vineyard, but during fermentation lacked vibrancy; sometimes vice versa; sometimes the wines surprised us as they grew out of their infancy in barrel. As the dust has settled and we look toward the early bottlings of these wines, our understanding of the vintage as a whole has certainly grown, and we can begin to make sense of the reds we’ll be bottling from 2013.

Merlots – Much like 2012, we see significant variation between vineyards and vineyard blocks. The standouts here are without a doubt Estate Vineyard #2 and Estate Vineyard #3. These wines are dark, complex, earthy, extracted, and powerful – not quite approachable yet, as far as tannins go, and as such we will allow another 6 months to a year on oak – but after some additional mellowing these two blocks will be promoted for use either in Reserve wines or in the Mosaic itself.  Both vineyards were entirely uninoculated fermantations, which seems to push the wines quickly past their primary fruits into more interesting realms.  Unfortunately for the season, the frost affected yields on much of our Merlot and our vintage bottling of this wine will likely be only half of what it was in 2012, but it is a strong year, vibrant, fruity, and dense.  We plan to bottle the 2013 Merlot prior to the 2014 harvest, in August.  The remaining blocks will remain in barrel until 2015.

Cabernet Francs – I remember saying during harvest, “I think all our Cab Franc this year will be Reserve quality.”  We adjusted pruning in our Shenandoah Springs Vineyard significantly, and it paid off.  Felix, one of our vineyard managers, said, “I’ve never tasted this fruit so ripe, or seen such dark berries.”  And then we went nuts in the cellar, extending the maceration of certain lots to a month as the tannins softened and midpalate lengthened.  Today we’re pulling the base for our 2013 Cabernet Franc blend.  It’s a brooding wine.  Dark and earthy like the bigger Merlots, but with cedar and smoke and clove.  Less fruity and more evolved than our Cabernet Francs tend to be.  And that’s not to mention what’ll actually make the Reserve – Estate Vineyard #1 and Estate Vineyard #3, which each have a well-defined savory quality, with cinnamon and nutmeg and juniper.  Lots of great options here.

Cabernet Sauvignons – Picked after an almost four-day rain in mid-October, we unfortunately lost the bigness and impact that we were hoping for, trading it for some leaner, more round and easy-drinking Cab Sauvs.  The standout here is Estate Vineyard #2, which we picked in two tries and which is still quite youthful and brightly fruity, but with complexity of texture and tannin.  All our grower Cab Sauv will likely be used in the 2013 Sunset Red, leaving us with a small quantity of a high quality varietal bottling for 2013.  Still we see that even in a solid season like 2013, the late-season rains can make this varietal very difficult in Virginia.  But the blocks that are good are really good, so it’s hard not to give it a go each new season.

Petit Verdots – This was the year of Petit Verdot for Sunset Hills.  Full crops from Shenandoah Springs, Catesby, and Estate Vineyard #3 – all quite different and destined for different bottlings.  Shenandoah Springs is the lightest of the bunch, with black pepper aromatics and surprisingly round and easy tannins for this notoriously difficult to tame varietal.  Catesby and Estate Vineyard #3 are both monsters – clove, bramble, fig, sultana, jammy fruit,  with thick, sinewy tannins.   As such, the Shenandoah Springs will likely find its way into numerous blends, lending structure and dark fruits, while Catesby and Estate Vineyard #3 will be promoted to use in Reserve wines and/or into our 2013 Petit Verdot.

A Tasting of “Nate’s Picks” For June/July 2014

May 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

May 16th, 2014

Sunset Hills Vineyard 2013 Viognier -

Something is in the air today.  As I sat down to type up the notes for our 2013 Viognier, I see that just this morning the 2013 Viognier was awarded the Chairman’s Award (Unanimous Gold) at the Riverside International Wine Competition – an award no previous Sunset Hills wine was won.  So what better day than today to open a bottle and write the notes?

The 2013 Viognier follows the 2012 vintage in many ways – these have been ripe, full years for Viognier, focused on large mouthfeel, full texture, and ripe floral aromatics.  The 2013 shows acacia, honeysuckle, mango, and passion fruit, with a supple, rich body and a very vivid, lively finish.  Slightly off-dry, even at this young age the 2013 seems harmonious and well-delineated.  Sadly (yes, there’s a downside here), due to the now imfamous (amongst winemakers) Mother’s Day frost of 2013, we lost a good portion of our Viognier crop.  As such, this wine will be reserved especially for our Club members, and will likely not be poured in our tasting room for the duration of the year.

Blend: 95% Viognier, 5% Petit Manseng

Vineyards: Estate Vineyard #1, Estate Vineyard #3, Catesby Vineyard, Bethany Ridge Vineyard



Sunset Hills Vineyard 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon -

At last! A new vintage of Cab Sauv!  It’s been far too long, and what’s particularly exciting is how well this wine has already opened up in bottle, which is the reason we’ve decided to include it in this shipment.  Generally we would sit on this wine until the fall, but it’s pouring far too well right now.

Aromatics of blackcurrant, stewed fruit, plum, and toast are already present, with a nice depth to the palate, and lots of black fruit flavors of black cherry and blackberry.  Not quite as bulky and lush as our 2010 Cab Sauv, our 2012 vintage focuses on black fruits, sweet spices, and penetrating aromatics, with a medium body and a long clove and nutmeg finish.  Fully ripe and very expressive at this early stage, we would expect this wine to continue gaining in complexity over the next five years.

Blend: 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot

Vineyards: Estate Vineyard #2, Shenandoah Springs Vineyard, Malick Vineyard, Breaux Vineyards

A Time For Mowing

May 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

May 8th, 2014

Leaves opening on our Vineyard #3 Merlot

Leaves opening on our Vineyard #3 Merlot

“What a strange thing!

to be alive

beneath cherry blossoms.”

-Kobayashi Issa


Spring has come fast and late in Virginia this year, and it’s erupting quickly.   When the forsythia and jonquils first bloom I am always reminded of a quote – “Every spring is the only spring – a perpetual astonishment,” – but this year it has really exploded quickly.  Partly this is due to the extremely cold winter combined with a cold early spring, pushing back the awakening period for most plants, so that they all came nearly at once, in one big burst.

Muscat Ottonel, reaching for the sky

Muscat Ottonel, reaching for the sky

It’s now the second week of May, and overall we’re seeing about 60%-70% budbreak.  Ask me again after this weekend and it’ll be more like 80%.  Budbreak was late this year – if there’s an “average” in Virginia, then the 2014 season seems to be about two weeks behind.  Also interesting is that the order of varietal budbreak is a bit off this year.  Whereas we normally see Chardonnay and Viognier first, coupled with Merlot and some of the young canes in Cab Franc, after which the later varieties begin to break, this year we’re seeing a pretty even break amongst all varietals, save for Petit Verdot, Cab Sauv, and Tannat, which are just starting to push.  I’ve asked our neighboring grapegrowers and most are seeing the same.  It will be interesting to see whether the timing of flowering and bloom adjusts to this pace or not.

Little moons of  dandilion

Little moons of dandelion

Viognier burst, Estate Vineyard #1

Viognier burst, Estate Vineyard #1

“It is Spring again.  The Earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.” – Rainer Maria Rilke


Photo Essay: The Long, Cold Winter

March 27, 2014 § 1 Comment

March 27th, 2014

On the bright side: we've had some brilliant sunrises this winter!

On the bright side: despite all the snow and cold, we’ve had some brilliant sunrises this winter!


Late March 2014 finds us with spots of snow still on the ground, freezing temperatures, and lots of work ahead of us.  It has been a nearly unprecedentedly cold and snowy winter in much of the East Coast, certainly in Virginia, and absolutely here at Sunset Hills.  In fact, the weather has been such a prominent topic of conversation for the past two months that I’m hesitant to bring it up at all.  Instead we’ll take a stroll around the production end of Sunset Hills to see what we’ve been up to.

The 2013 Rose of Cabernet Franc magnum.  We love a good wax dip.

The 2013 Rose of Cabernet Franc magnum. We love a good wax dip.

Nearly all our 2013 whites have been bottled this winter.  Thus far we’ve bottled the 2013 Sunset White, 2013 Chardonnay, 2013 Rose, 2013 Rose of Cabernet Franc, 2013 Viognier, and 2013 Reserve Chardonnay.  Due to low yields in our estate fruit, we will be skipping the vintage with Petit Manseng – a bummer for sure, but on the bright side we were able to do some wonderful blending with Petit Manseng in our Chardonnay and Viognier.  The 2013 whites are quite nice – fleshier and riper than in 2012 – and we’re excited to see them appear on our tasting lineup and in the Club shipments.  Bottling season will continue through June this year, as we still have our beefier 2012 reds to barrel, as well as some of the earlier 2013s.  All told we will be bottling more wine in 2014 than ever before, and we’re quite fortunate to have some very exciting releases around the corner.


Double Magnums!?

Double Magnums!?

We were excited and honored to have our 2010 Mosaic included in the Virginia Governor’s Cup Case for a second year in a row.  This is quite an honor, as the competition itself is quite stringent, and the fellow wines and wineries included in the Case are truly wonderful expressions of Virginia wine.  We are further excited to be putting the finishing touches on our 2012 Mosaic, and moving it into bottle in May, although at this time we aren’t planning on releasing it until next winter.

You're telling me the winemaker actually prunes?

You’re telling me the winemaker actually prunes?

And, of course, winter is for pruning.  While we were hoping to have completed the installation of our new vineyard, Sherman Ridge Vineyard, the weather has not yet permitted.  So, instead, the crew has been busy pruning through these freezing days.  With 60 acres to prune, this task essentially spreads out over the entire winter.  The picture above is the Cabernet Sauvignon in our Estate Vineyard #2.  He should probably be wearing gloves.


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