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.
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
May 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
May 8th, 2014
“What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms.”
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.
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.
“It is Spring again. The Earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
March 27, 2014 § 1 Comment
March 27th, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
March 17, 2014 § Leave a comment
March 17th, 2014
Below are descriptions of the wines we will be offering as “Nate’s Picks” for the April/May Estate Club Shipments. Enjoy!
Sunset Hills Vineyard 2013 Chardonnay – Unreleased until now, I’m very excited to be getting our 2013 Chardonnay (as well as all of our 2013 whites) into everyone’s hands. Made in a similar style to our “stainless” Chardonnays of past vintages, the 2013 Chardonnay benefited from the very cool and long ripening season at Shenandoah Springs Vineyard. Much more dense in the mid-palate, with riper aromatics of peach and pear and white flower, and a nice crisp refreshing acidity, this is more in line with the Chardonnays we were seeing from the 2009 vintage. Very expressive and vibrant. While the wine is very fresh and young now, we expect this to age from now until 2016. Also: ask about the screwcaps!
Sunset Hills Vineyard 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon – Some of you may have had this wine at private tastings or Estate Club events over the past year, but we’ve finally decided to let it go and release it to the Universe. Wonderfully aromatic, with great cigarbox and molasses and baking spice on the nose; super-smooth (my word) on the mid-palate, with flavors of tobacco, dried fruit, vanilla, and coffee. We were fortunate to be given a vintage in which we could make a Cabernet Sauvignon in the more “international” style (very ripe, very smooth, very expressive), while still retaining that great acidity and bright fruit of our Estate Vineyard #2, and we consider this to be a once-in-five-years Cab Sauv. This Estate Club shipment will sell us out, sadly.
January 16, 2014 § Leave a comment
January 16th, 2014
Our first shipment in 2014, The Year of The Horse, is a very exciting one, as it’s allowing us to really start to dig into our 2012 reds.
Sunset Hills Vineyard 2012 Cabernet Franc – The 2012 vintage is most exciting for us because this is our first Cab Franc bottling showcasing Shenandoah Springs Vineyard, from which the base of this blend comes and where we plan to focus for this wine in the future. Highly fruity, with bright red cherry and raspberry aromatics, this bottling is currently showing a nice fruit-forward mid-palate and light, approachable tannins. We have just begun pouring this in our tasting room as well, where it has thus far been well-received. We are anticipating a development in complexity leading into 2018.
87% Cabernet Franc, 9% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot
Sunset Hills Vineyard 2012 Sunset Red – With each year we tend to reinvent our Sunset Red. 2009 was a Cab Sauv-base, 2010 a Merlot, 2011 a Petit Verdot base, and now in 2012 we have a Syrah/Cab Sauv. What we’re pushing for here is essentially the best reflection of the vintage. In light years, we focus this wine on delicacy and aromatics. In heavy years we just want a powerhouse. For the 2012 vintage, it was more about finesse, a nice sappy core, and tannin texture. Thus, the blend is quite diverse, and includes numerous vineyards as well as a small amount of returned hard press wine. Bold, highly aromatic, and lush, we’re expecting to see some very good aging from the 2012 Sunset Red.
32% Syrah, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Petit Vedot, 16% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc
January 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
January 3rd, 2014
In my experience, it’s a common question: “What do you do over the winter?” Vines are dormant, grapes are pressed and fermented, so what do all the vineyard workers and winemakers do in the cold months?
We Rack The New Red Wines.
After a season such as 2013, our cellar is full of barrels of aggressive red wines with coarsely particulate tannins and often reductive odors. We have found this to be a good thing for wines which will be bottled after at least 12 months in barrels. These wines are showing characteristics that will lead toward better ageing; however, if kept away from oxygen, the tannins will remain coarse and gritty, and the wines won’t reach their full potential. Additionally, the presence of heavier lees in the barrels can lead to issues with reduction. With the integration of oxygen at this stage, however, color is stabilized, tannins are pushed toward a finer texture, and the wine as a whole shows better aromatic integration. So we must introduce oxygen.
Thus, after malolactic fermentation has completed for our new red wines, we “rack” all the wines out of barrel and into tanks. Once in tanks, the ph is adjusted (if necessary), the barrels are cleaned, the wine is given a dose of SO2, and then “returned” to the barrels which are then tucked back in the cellar. This is also an opportunity to do some early blending, and to make decisions about where the hard press wines will be used. All in all, with hundreds of barrels to go through, the winter racking generally takes us at least six weeks, and sometimes more.
Pruning involves removing each vine’s growth from the previous year – essentially “resetting” the vine an identical stage as the previous winter, so that new growth adheres to the trellising system, new fruiting wood is chosen, and so that we can manipulate the potential yield for the upcoming year. This is done by hand, vine by vine, and involves removing a large amount of wood from the vineyard. It’s a lot of work, and it’s some of the more skilled work to be done in the vineyard. Pruning dictates a lot of things for the upcoming year, and as such it is very important that it is done with an eye toward quality. While we generally delay final pruning until the weeks before Spring budbreak, our vineyard crew is essentially pruning for the entire winter – we start with “rough pruning” and selection of new canes, and then move toward “final pruning” as the days begin to warm.
Winter is also a period of blending and bottling for us. Generally, we are working toward getting the new season’s (2013’s) “early” whites ready for bottling – the Sunset White blend, Chardonnays, Roses, Viognier – as well as some of the larger-bodied red wines from the season prior (2012) which includes blending, stabilizing, and filtering, not to mention the logistics of glass, labels, corks, capsules, etc. We try to do most of our bottling between December and June, as this tends to be the sweet spot for the wines, and it also helps to keep us free during the most vineyard-focused portions of the season, so we can keep our focus on ripening and harvest when the time comes.