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.

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.

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

A Tasting of “Nate’s Picks” for the February/March 2014 Shipment

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


Racking, Pruning, Bottling

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.

Barrel of 2013 Cabernet Franc waiting, in the snow, to be racked.

Barrel of 2013 Cabernet Franc waiting, in the snow, to be racked.

We Prune.

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.

Rough-pruned Cabernet Sauvignon.

Rough-pruned Cabernet Sauvignon.

We Bottle.

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.

Winter Pruning Has Begun

December 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Winter Pruning Has Begun

Rough pruning our Estate Vineyard #1 Chardonnay

Harvest 2013 Update

October 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

October 21st, 2013

This morning we started in on our final blocks to be picked for the 2013 harvest – the “’01” and “’02” Petit Verdot blocks at Shenandoah Springs.  Most likely it will take us three days to pick through these, and also three days to destem them at the winery.  I am excited to see this fruit – it is ripe and quite excellent for a dense, juicy style of Petit Verdot that most likely will be used for the base of a varietal bottling.  It will be a good way to finish harvest, and will give us some fermentations to last into November.

Not so pink wine.

Not so pink wine.

As in most years, we have a number of exciting experiments bubbling away in the cellar – four different rose wines, more specified block separations, diversity of fermentation times and temperatures, larger use of uninoculated fermentations, etc.  I won’t even tell you what all we’re doing with Chambourcin.  It’s been an exciting vintage not only for these reasons, but because we’re seeing considerable elevation in fruit quality in vineyard blocks which we were working with in hopes of achieving better balance and more uniform ripeness.  It will be some time before we can make any concrete conclusions on these wines, but the work seems to have promise.

Cabernet Franc press wine.  Or is it Burdeas Tinto?

Cabernet Franc press wine. Or is it Burdeas Tinto?

The weather has cooperated very well for the 2013 vintage.  We only saw one strong rain event – about 4 days in which we got 4 inches – but this came at the tail end of harvest and did not affect much.  It was a cooler ripening period for us, punctuated by a spurt of warmth in early October, which we were able to take advantage of to heat fermentations and push our Cab Sauv blocks into fuller ripeness.  All in all we have a lot to be thankful for.

Harvest 2013 Limbo

October 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

October 1st, 2013

We’re relaxing somewhere in the middle of our 2013 harvest – a limbo between having picked all our whites, and waiting on the ripening of most of our reds. As such we have an opportunity for a bit of reflection on the 2013 season as a whole. Below are a few of the topics which have come to define the season for Sunset Hills.

Fruit samples - when to pick?

Fruit samples – when to pick?

Late Bud Break, and The Frost – While the majority of the state was affected by what is being called “The Mother’s Day Frost,” I haven’t been able to get any actual data on the total acreage of vineyard or tonnage of fruit affected. This information won’t likely be available from the state until next year. Anecdotally, though, it seems to havet has been fairly bad, inasmuch as very few wineries or growers in Northern Virginia were not affected directly (through their own vineyards) or indirectly (through their growers). To be affected by the frost means that newly opened “buds” on the vine were exposed to freezing temperatures, which will destroy the buds and prevent all or some fruiting for the entire season. This is especially problematic, as the demand for grapes in 2013 has been very high.
Sunset Hills had frost damage at both the Estate Vineyards and Catesby Vineyards, primarily in white varietals like Viognier, Chardonnay, and Traminette. As such, our overall white production for 2013 will be below what we were hoping; however, we saw almost no frost issues with red varietals, and are on track for our biggest red wine harvest to date.
Similarly, the cold Spring delayed our budbreak until late April and early May, depending on varieties. This pushed the season back about two weeks relative to the past four years. While this did not mean anything definitive for the 2013 season, it suggested that it might be difficult for us to ripen our late-ripening varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon. Luckily, our autumnal weather has solved this issue for us, at least so far.

Spring and Summer Rains – Yes, we had rains. A lot of them. Disease pressure for downy mildew was higher this year than any of my previous seasons at Sunset Hills, and vigilant vineyard management has been more important this year than ever, especially considering the high vigor. Our June and July vineyard labor hours were off-the-charts high, as the crew attempted to keep up with the vines’ rapid growth through canopy and crop management. But I believe the hard work has paid off, as we’re now seeing exceptionally clean fruit being harvested and pressed.

Cool, Sunny August and September – The latter half of the growing season has been the real boon. August and September have been exquisite, with warm, sunny days and cool nights. We’ve seen slow, uniform ripening almost across the board in all our varietals, and there has been almost no rain in the past three weeks. (That said, next week might be a bit wet.) As these warm days and cool nights pile up, we begin to see a very good vintage forming.

Cabernet Franc harvest, Estate Vineyard #1

Cabernet Franc harvest, Estate Vineyard #1

It is, of course, too early to say much, since we still have about half of our fruit hanging on the vines, and since none of our fermentations have even finished yet; however, it’s certainly not too early to get excited.

A Tasting of “Nate’s Picks” for October 2013

September 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

Nate’s Picks for October 2013:

2012 Petit Manseng

Blend: 100% Petit Manseng

Vineyards: Estate Vineyard #3, South River Vineyard, Amrhein Vineyard

The Wine:  We were fortunate to be able to work with two great growers for additional Petit Manseng fruit in 2012 – South River, in Green County, and Amrhein in Bent Mountain.  These vineyards brought length and expressive varietal characteristics to the blend, while our Estate Vineyard #3 brought ripe fruit, great sugars, and phenomenal acid.  The 2012 vintage is a movement toward less obtrusive oak, as we find ourselves wanting to show the inimitable varietal characteristics of Petit Manseng.  Slightly off-dry, a la the 2010 (if anybody can remember back that far), our Petit Manseng was fermented entirely in French oak, with a winter lees stirring program.

2012 Reserve Chardonnay

Blend: 100% Chardonnay

Vineyards: Estate Vineyard #3, Shenandoah Springs Vineyard

The Wine:  With the 2012 Reserve Chardonnay, we were able to explore blending the barrel ferment piece of both the Estate Vineyard and Shenandoah Springs Vineyard, allowing us to utilize the length and texture of Shenandoah Springs with the ripeness and power of Estate Vineyard #1.  The result is what will probably settle into being the most complex and intriguing Chardonnay from the 2012 vintage.  This wine was held back until the October shipment in hopes that it will be drunk with fall and winter meals, as the wine has more weight than many of our other white wines.

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