A Tasting of the October/November 2015 Club Shipment

September 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

September 10th, 2015

Sunset Hills Vineyard 2014 Reserve Chardonnay – A pre-release of our most cherished Chardonnay bottling of the year, the 2014 Reserve Chardonnay is, in our winemaker’s opinion, our best Reserve Chardonnay yet.  Highly ripe, with orange peel, ginger, and tropical fruit aromatics, this year’s release is more subtly-oaked than in the past, with nice vanilla and coconut peering around the fruit, and a long, spicy dense finish.  A very interesting wine.

While in previous years the Reserve has originated in Estate Vineyard #1, the 2014 is a blend of our two Chardonnay vineyards – 65% Estate Vineyard #1 and 35% Shenandoah Springs.  The purpose here was to couple the great, ripe, pronounced aromatics of our V1 Chard with the more textural, acid-driven fruit from the Shenandoah Valley.  100% Chardonnay.  100% barrel fermented.  This is a pre-release for our club members.   Winner, Best Loudoun County Chardonnay, Loudoun Wine Awards.

Sunset Hills Vineyard 2014 Cabernet Franc – What a great vintage for Cabernet Franc!  And what great variety!  Shenandoah Springs gave us Cabernet Franc with nice finesse, great red fruit characteristics, and a depth we’re excited to have finally coaxed from the vineyard through better balance in the vines and more even ripening.  Our Estate blocks were ripe ripe in 2014, making big, lush wines leaning more toward stewed fruit and cigarbox aromatics, with a nice sweetness to the finish and a vibrant, pleasing quality.

Blending was very difficult and also very rewarding for this wine.  Ultimately, we wanted a thoughtful mixture of the two styles, meaning this wine has selections from both vineyards, as well as a dabble of Petit Verdot, so we’ve got great dense aromatics of bramble, baking spice, cedar, and bold red fruits.  A pre-release for our members, this wine is slated for release in our tasting room in late fall.

A Fresh, Vibrant 2015 April / May Shipment

March 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

March 16th, 2015

Sunset Hills Vineyard 2014 Chardonnay – Our first release of the 2014 whites, this wine will be a great introduction to the vibrant, zippy whites produced from what became a wonderfully cool, slow end-of-the-season ripening period for our white wines, and especially our different blocks of Chardonnay.  Alcohols are refreshingly low (averaging ~12-13.5%), while acids are as low and refreshing as we can reasonably expect in Loudoun, and flavors are ripe, ripe ripe – think acacia, lychee, passion fruit, orange blossom.

Veering a bit off our standard course in the cellar, about 25% of this “stainless” Chardonnay was fermented in oak, mostly neutral, in hopes of lengthening the palate and adding aromatic dimension.  Additionally, while the large majority of the Chardonnay comes from Shenandoah Springs, we utilized a bit of Estate Vineyard #1 in order to flesh the wine out and add body.  A pre-release for our Club, this wine will be released to the public in May.

Sunset Hills Vineyard 2013 Merlot –  The 2013 season gave us wonderful levels of ripeness in all blocks Merlot, producing concentrated fruit with a darker, denser, more intense and more structured Merlots than we’ve ever produced.  Unfortunately, however, the quantities are quite small, due to a frost that took many sections of the Merlot blocks.  Some of the Merlot was used here, for the varietal bottling, while the rest remained in barrel for use the Mosaic.  Alas, it’s all really good and really delicious, and we don’t have much of it.

Blending here was done with a larger portion of Petit Verdot than standard, as much of the free run PV from Shenandoah Springs showcased gorgeous brambled fruit without the harsh tannic back end that Petit Verdot sometimes gives, making it a nice wine to utilize for lifting both the aromatics and tannins of the Merlot.  Aged for 8 months in barrel and another 8 in bottle, this wine will essentially be sold out after the Club release.

Our Most Memorable Wines of 2014

January 21, 2015 § Leave a comment

January 21st, 2015

Speaking with some of our staff, I thought it would be fun to compile a list of a few of our favorite wines and wine memories of 2014.  Partly this is for my own benefit – I’m always looking for interesting wines, and I love a good wine story – but partly also I wanted to see how wine had fit into peoples’ lives over the previous year.  By no means does this include our entire staff, but here’s a good sampler:

Elizabeth Sedlins, Hospitality and Public Relations (and also one of our (if not the) longest-standing employees!):  Francois Montand Blanc de Blanc Brut NV

My husband and I finished signing all the papers involved in closing on our house on July 28th last year.  John and I left the lawyer’s office and drove directly to our new address.  We carried two things into our “new” old house (our new home was built in 1790):  an antique clock made by an ancestor whose son was killed in the Battle of Antietam, and a bottle of Francois Montand (and two glasses).  
We placed the clock on the fireplace mantel, set the fragile hand pieces to the correct time and wound it with the antique L-shaped key.  The old house now had a heart beat.  John popped the cork on the Champagne and we now had a celebration!  The bubbles seemed so elegant, the racing acidity lifting the creamy texture to a lovely finish.  I have heard good champagne described as a sword wrapped in whipped cream.  Indeed!
It was a moment I will always remember: the clinking of our glasses, the ticking of the clock and the sun moving across the old random-width pine floors.  Our country was young when this house was built, many families have lived here.  The bloodiest battle in our history was fought across the river.  It was a reminder that we are one couple, in one specific time, in one specific place – but this specific time and this specific place.  
Lawrence Camp, Operations Manager: Podere San Cristofero 2008 Petit Verdot (battonage trials)
   In June I had the opportunity to travel to Italy with my girlfriend to visit our friend Lorenzo, who owns a winery in Tuscany. We made it to his vineyard/home 4 days into the trip, and 3 days after I successfully proposed to my [now] fiancée(!). One particular evening, Lorenzo opened up two special wines to celebrate our engagement. For me, the experience was absolutely unforgettable. I found myself sitting at a table with my newly betrothed and our dear friend, smelling, tasting, and discussing the nuances of his fine wines out of hand-marked and unlabeled bottles – these Petit Verdots were trials bottled to understand the effects of battonage on their reds). Even now I can almost feel the sensory overload delivered by the warm Tuscan air gently breezing through our kitchen-turned-tasting room, the vineyard views out of the opened window, and the wines themselves – two aged varietal Petit Verdots. The wines were so memorable not only because they were outstanding quality (which they were!), but also because I was caught up in the experience – one that had probably been repeated in that region millions of times for more than a thousand years.
Penni Walker, Wine Club and Events Manager: Apothic Red 2012
   My most memorable wine of 2014 was supposed to be Sunset Hills 2010 Mosaic, on the day my youngest child (and only son), graduated from USMC boot-camp this past November.  The whole family was able to make the trip, and it was sure to be a great and wonderful day.  As it happened, I was so worried about where to pack my precious bottle of Mosaic in the car that I left it on the kitchen table.  When I realized it had been left behind, I was devastated – you know all that planning of the “open that bottle” moment in your head.

In the end, that was silliness.  The day shared with my “little” family of 10 was among the best in my life, and the bottle we eventually had, a 2012 Apothic Red, purchased at a Walgreens, was exactly what we needed.

As for the Mosaic?  Well, I have grandbaby #3 coming this summer, so perhaps then.  There’s always something to look forward to, and a wine that will go perfectly with the day.



Mike Canney, Owner: Sunset Hills Vineyard 2010 Reserve Cabernet Franc

My most memorable wine of 2014 was the Sunset Hills 2010 Reserve Cab Franc.  Partly, it was because Diane and I were cooking out in Florida, with steaks, baked potatoes and corn on the cob on the grill.  That is my favorite meal, and with all the health worries about cholesterol, etc, etc, etc, and being aware of my goal to live forever (so far so good!), it is a special meal that I don’t get too often.  When I do, I wouldn’t waste the occasion with anyone, or any ingredients –  it is only the best.

So, Diane and I picked our 2010 Reserve Cab Franc, shared a glass while the steaks were cooking, and finished the bottle with dinner outside.  To me, the best wine for grilled steaks is a rich, powerful cab franc, and I think we do one of the best.  It was a great evening, and if I did it again, I would want the exact same experience.



Nate Walsh, Winemaker: Santo Wines Santorini Assyrtiko Grande Reserve 2011

This summer my entire family – parents, siblings, wife, sisters-in-law – traveled to Greece to celebrate my Mom’s retirement.  It was a great trip, partly because we got to see so many beautiful areas in Greece, but also because it was an opportunity to spend time with my family, who I don’t always see enough.  Both my and my wife’s (and her sister’s) birthdays happened while in Santorini, toward the end of the trip.  To celebrate our birthdays, Sarah and I slipped away one evening to have dinner together, just the two of us.  We wandered through the streets of Oia until we found a nice-looking place, and had dinner on a balcony, surrounded by candles, staring out at dusk over the ocean.  The wine itself – I have to be honest – it was nice, but certainly I’ve had “better” wines a hundred times over the past year.  But that’s the one I remember, in that moment.

The February/March 2015 Club Shipment

January 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

January 12th, 2015

Generally both of the wines in this shipment would have already been released – we usually release Petit Verdot around Christmas, and Petit Manseng around Thanksgiving; however, for the February/March 2015 shipment we wanted to do something special, so we delayed these releases until the wines opened up into a pronounced complexity of aromatics, until they were really swingin’.  While these can be enjoyed over the next few years, our winemaker thinks the 2013 Petit Manseng and 2012 Petit Verdot are both currently in a great sweet spot, and are pouring wonderfully.

Sunset Hills Vineyard 2013 Petit Manseng –  Our fourth bottling of this varietal wine, and also the fourth time (due to limited quantities) that it’s been available only to the club.  The 2013 is more akin, in many ways, to the 2010: highly-ripe, exotic fruits blended with coconut, vanilla, and thai spice all kind of focused around a sappy core of deep fruit and invigorating acidity.  One of the most exciting white wines that came from the 2013 vintage.  Petit Manseng, for me, continues to prove itself as one of the more consistently delicious – emphasis on delicious – and interesting white wines we’re able to produce, although our style has been changing over the years as a reflection of the different vintages.  Drink now through, what, 2018?

Blend: 100% Petit Manseng, Berry Hill Vineyard, Orange VA


Sunset Hills Vineyard 2012 Petit Verdot – Petit Verdot can be many things: brambles and chunky tannin, black fruits and bracing acid, cigarspice and oak, and on and on.  For us, much of this has to do with the vineyard and vintage, and much also with our decisions of where to lead the wine through blending.  The 2012 vintage was exciting because it gave us two new vineyards in which to grow Petit Verdot, and thus really expanded our blending options.  As such, I believe we have a fuller, more ultimately self-contained Petit Verdot – one that has more balance than what we’ve achieved in previous years, while still showing those great graphite and bramble spice notes that make the varietal so interesting.  Just released.  Drink now through 2020.

Blend: 75% Petit Verdot, Shenandoah Springs Vineyard & Catesby Vineyard

22% Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate Vineyard #2

3% Merlot, Malick Vineyard

A Tasting of the Wines in the December/January 2014 Club Shipment

December 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

December 15th, 2014

We always try to save a special shipment for the holiday season, something full of nice high-end reds that our Club members can pour over holiday dinners or get-togethers.

Sunset Hills Vineyard 2012 Reserve Cabernet Franc – Once more, in the 2012 vintage, some of our most vibrant, spice-filled, and lush Cabernet Franc came from Estate Vineyard #1, from which we have been bottling our Reserve Cabernet Franc since it’s inception in 2007.  With the 2012, we chose barrels based not only on expressiveness and ripeness, but also on depth of texture and structure.  I consider this to be a step in the right direction with this wine, producing a Reserve Cab Franc that should show more finess than in previous years.

Generally, Vineyard #1 needs very little blending – maybe a bit of Merlot or Petit Verdot – but the wine does require time both in barrel and in bottle to allow the tannins to mellow out a bit.  With 12 months in oak and another 12 months in bottle, we’ve done the diligence on our end so that the 2012 Reserve Cabernet Franc is fully drinkable now (although another 2-5 years is recommended for those who have the patience).  Just released, we will be pouring this in the tasting room over the next two or three months.

Sunset Hills Vineyard 2012 Dusk – Our second bottling of our port-style dessert wine.  Produced using 100% Chambourcin from Catesby Vineyard.  While we are fermenting on the skins, aged grape brandy is added incrementally during fermentation until the fermentation is arrested at 18% alcohol.  We then age the resulting wine in a 60/40 blend of neutral oak and used whiskey barrels, imparting subtle and smooth coconut, vanilla, and charred toast aromatics.  Closest in style to a ruby port,  but with darker fruits and a bit more tannin.

Our Dusk wines thus far have been bottled in very limited quantities, meaning that after this shipment we will not have much left, and our inventory will dwindle down over the winter months. This wine is only ever available to the club, and while we don’t know for certain how long the aging will be, our anticipation is 3-7 years.

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