A Tasting of “Nate’s Picks” for the December, 2011 Estate Club Shipment

October 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Estate Club wines!  My favorite wines to taste!

2009 Tannat (Estate Club Select)

Here’s a wonderfully obscure wine for you: a Virginia Tannat.  Tannat has been historically grown in Southwest France, in the Madiran, which is an interesting wine region because, legally, they only allow red wines to be grown and made.  And the most widely planted red grape in the Madiran is Tannat, a highly-concentrated, deep red, highly tannic (the similarity between “tannin” and “tannat” is not coincidental) wine.  More recently Tannat has traveled to Uruguay, where it is the “national grape,” much like the Cardinal is our “state bird.”  Tannat plantings are splattered around other regions in South America, Italy, and the United States, but in fairly small quantities, which is why, unfortunately, many wine drinkers have never heard of it.

But it does well in Virginia, and has been doing so for over ten years.  There are some great Tannats coming from Horton, Hillsborough, Chrysalis, Chateau O’Brien and many others, but these wines are, for the most part, in short supply, and not well-known.  I love these wines.  They’re inky dark with a concentrated perfume and often wild, untamed tannins that should age well over time, most likely better than many other Virginia reds.

We made a bit of Tannat in the 2009 season, as an experiment, and after the first winter in barrel it became clear that the 2009 would be our first red Estate Club Select.  The wine is dark dark, aromatically full of dark red fruit, bramble, a slight earthiness, and vanilla.  It’s medium-bodied, and packing some serious tannins, as well as an intense, long finish.  This is a wine that morphs over time.  I’ve had a bottle at my desk open all week and each day it’s changed in aromatics and mouthfeel, gradually mellowing and opening up into something quite wonderful.

Our 2009 Tannat Estate Club Select is only available to Estate Club members through the December, 2011 wine shipment, and will not be available after the shipment.  I am excited to offer this wine.

Blend: 75% Tannat, 25% Merlot

Cases Produced: 104

2010 Nettare di Tramonte

This late harvest Vidal Blanc is by far the most exotic, expressive dessert wine we’ve made at Sunset Hills, and with good reason: the 2010 season was practically begging us to make late harvest wines.  With so much heat and so little water, we had to fight not to get sugar levels up in the unfermentable range.  The lone acre of Vidal Blanc we secure for our Nettare was ideal: some dessicated fruit, some botrytis, some super-ripe berries – all hanging from the same clusters. 

This wine is still in infancy, and I’ll be begging our Estate Club members to cellar this for a few years – these wines get so much more interesting and wonderful as time passes.  Right now, it’s full of fermentation esters, mint, honey, citrus, orange peel, and an almost bubblegum-like fruitiness.  The mouthfeel is wide, lush, and the finish is long and spicy.  A memorable wine.

Harvest: 10.20.10

Brix at harvest: 30

Residual sugar: 9%

Two things to note with this shipment: (1) these wines will be better if given time to age.  I would recommend up to five years if you’ve got the patience.  (2) these wines are both in limited supply, and more or less will not be available after this shipment.  We simply did not have much fruit for either of these wines.

The Final 2011 Harvest Update

October 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

Earlier this week we picked our final block of fruit – Cabernet Franc from Vineyard 3 – which pushed us to a Sunset Hills record of harvesting 85 tons of fruit in one very busy harvest season.  There’s still a hearty amount of red fermentations rocking in the cellar, plenty of draining and pressing and barreling down in our future, but I think harvest technically ends with the last picking.

Har vestnoun – the season when ripened crops are gathered (Origin Old English haerfest)

The 2011 season will of course be remembered as that one really rainy year in Virginia, much like 2003 will now be remembered as that other really rainy year in Virginia, the one like 2011.  Across the state winegrowers had difficulties starting in August, when it rained roughly 3 inches more than normal, heading into September, when much of the state was drenched by a hurricane, and continuing into October, when the sun just didn’t want to shine and the winds just didn’t want to blow.  Different sections of the Old Dominion were, of course, hit in varying degrees by this poor ripening weather, but everybody was struggling to one degree or another.

Why do winegrowers freak out when it rains during ripening season?  Many reasons.  Fruit doesn’t ripen when water is continually injected into it; the sun doesn’t generally shine when it’s raining (meaning fruit doesn’t ripen); many of the mildew problems Virginia always has the potential for become exacerbated by wet, cloudy weather; color is affected; concentration is affected; the vines are confused; and nobody likes working in the rain.  With all this wetness comes the risk of rotten fruit (which doesn’t make good wine), unconcentrated fruit (which doesn’t make good wine), and unripe fruit (which, you guessed it, doesn’t make good wine).

Virginia had all of these problems in 2011.  Sunset Hills had all of these problems as well.  However, when I retrospectively consider our vineyard actions during the worsening part of the season, I am grateful for (nearly) all of the vineyard decisions we made: we cropped low, we obsessively pulled leaves, we maintained healthy canopy, we dropped unwanted fruit throughout the poor weather, and we did not pick early.  We picked very late, and very slow.  We picked every single vineyard block considerably later than we’d ever picked it before – our last viognier block came in five weeks later than the same block last year – and we picked at 30%-40% of our normal speed, to ensure that no poor fruit entered the winery. 

I’m looking through my cellar book now and am very excited about the wines we’ve made, and are still making.  We brought in (nearly) all of our blocks at a full ripeness, and flavors during fermentation and slightly post-fermentation are promising.   We have our first port-style wine, our first Albarino, some exotic Petit Manseng, some wonderful barrel fermented Merlot rosé, some extraordinarily dark and powerful Merlot, loads of Petit Verdot, slatey, fruit-driven Cabernet Franc, and all kinds of other goodies.

It’s too early to say anything definitive about the wines, or how the blends will shuffle out, other than that I am sincerely proud of what we’ve done with our vineyards and fermentations for the 2011 season.  There could have been (and probably was) a lot of bad wine made in Virginia this year, but I can confidently say none of it will come from us (unless I accidentally drop my boot in Tank 4) and that, in fact, we’ll have a lot of bottlings to contradict the season.  We’ll be opening our cellar and barrels to the public this winter for barrel tastings, and I will be proud to showcase the wines.  In the meantime, I leave you with some inky Cab Franc . . .



Harvest Update – Mostly Photos

October 20, 2011 § Leave a comment


Vineyard #2, the day after picking Cab Sauv

Today (Oct 20th) finds us with a mere 10-15 tons of fruit still hanging on the vines – specifically two blocks of Cab Franc, and one of Petit Verdot.  All our whites, Merlot, Cab Sauv, and most of our Cab Franc and others are in and fermenting, or already barreled down for the winter.  We’ve processed roughly 70 tons so far.


A pro

 Despite the rains, many of our vineyards have hung in there for quite a long season, and we’ve had some great fruit enter the winery.  Much of the wine we’ve already fermented is showing great promise, and I’m excited for what we’re bringing in this week, and the next.  We still have a few weeks of fermenting and pressing, so things aren’t over yet.

Can you crack the code?

2011 Harvest Update – Midpoint Between the Whites and the Reds (Sort of)

October 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’ve got a little breathing room as we prepare to bring in the last of our whites.  Here’s where we’re at:  we’ve picked all the Chardonnay, all the Albariño, all the Petit Manseng, and most of the Viognier.  We’ve picked one small lot of Merlot, one of Petit Verdot, and one of a grape which I won’t yet name, but which will be used for our first port. 

With all the rain we’ve gotten over the past two months, it’s been a difficult year in terms of allowing ideal hangtime.  We’ve had too many rainy days to count, which, when there isn’t enough sunlight to dry things off, creates conditions for the growth of a number of grape mildews or rots.  Many growers have had to make tough decisions – some fruit has been dropped due to overwhelming rot, some left on the vine for the same reason, and some picked early to avoid potential problems.  While I generally assume the grass is greener for everybody else, I know we’ve been fortunate in our vineyards this year, partly due to getting the crew out pulling leaves when the rains started, partly due to our already low yields and favorable cluster spacing, and partly due, I think, to luck.  As it stands, we’ve been picking everything much later than usual, and at about 40% of our normal picking speed, so that we get the fruit cleaned up in the vineyard (meaning we simply don’t pick what won’t make good wine), making our pressing and winemaking decisions much easier.  Also, we’ve broken sections of the vineyards into even smaller lots, and we’ve been treating each lot differently based upon parameters of ripeness.  It’s been a fun year to problem solve and push hard to get in fruit in as ripe as possible.

Big purchase for the 2011 Harvest: new coffeemaker. Now we can whole cluster press all night!

 Despite the wet weather, I’m very excited about the fruit we’ve brought in: the Chardonnay lots are full of pineapple and spice, Albariño is crisp and exotic, Petit Manseng floats in another galaxy, and the Viogniers span quite a pleasant expanse of green melon, ripe melon, and broad spice.  It’s a testament to the vineyard crew that settling and fermentations have been so clean and problem free – things would be a lot different if the fruit didn’t look so good.  It’s a bit early to say anything about the reds this year, but I’m always optimistic.  Tomorrow we pick V1 Viognier and Merlot.  Saturday we pick Malick Viognier.  Monday we pick V3 Merlot.  Tuesday we begin looking closely at Cab Franc blocks.  And on it goes.

One of these is actually Welch's

 Across the board, the 2011 harvest has potential to be somewhat polarizing for each individual winery, because while there will certainly be many good and sometimes great wines made this year, it is also possible, because of the disease pressure in nearly all Virginia vineyards, for some pretty bad juice.  This is a year for winegrowers and winemakers to really show what they’re made of, in terms of keeping their vineyards clean and, if necessary, adjusting their winemaking to fix potential issues in the cellar.  Once the wines are bottled, consumers will choose whose work they prefer to drink with dinner, and nobody wants to be left with a warehouse full of unsold wine.

Today is sunny, which makes me happy.  We’ve got guys out in our Viognier cleaning the clusters, dropping fruit we don’t want, and getting things ready for picking tomorrow.  I’m excited about getting this fruit into the cellar, and looking toward adjusting our sights for some serious red winemaking, which will come in the next three weeks.   As always, we’re always happy to see visitors during harvest, so don’t hesitate to come by to check out our operations!

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