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 § Leave a 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.

A Tasting of “Nate’s Picks” for April/May 2014 – Something Old and Something New

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.

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

A Tasting of the December 2013 Shipment

November 15, 2013 § 2 Comments

November 15th, 2013

We’re very excited to be releasing two new wines for our Estate Club December 2013 shipment.  Both wines have been sitting patiently in our warehouse for some time now, and as they’ve just begun to open up in expression, we’re fortunate to have appropriate weather (and holidays) as well.  The below 2012 Merlot is just being release in our tasting room for the holiday season, while the 2011 Dusk is only available to Estate and Reserve Club members.

Sunset Hills Vineyard 2012 Merlot – The reds coming from the 2012 vintage are very exciting for us – full-bodied, broad, but with a nice delicate finesse that we last saw from the somewhat comparable 2009 season (and have missed ever since!).  The 2012 Merlot is no exception, very open, very juicy and ripe, with a brambled-fruit and black currant density of aromatics.  The bulk of this blend comes from “X Block,” which gave lift and fruit that is improbably both bright and dark, although we’re still not quite sure how that’s possible.  Added in are a touch of both 4% Petit Verdot and 4% Cab Sauv, adding firmness and textural elegance, respectively.  This wine is just being released in our tasting room for the upcoming Virginia winter.

Sunset Hills Vineyard 2011 Dusk – This is a new release for Sunset Hills.  “Dusk” is a port-style wine made entirely from Chambourcin and grape brandy.  Produced by arresting the fermentation with additions of brandy (all prior to pressing), the aging is entirely in 50% French oak barrels and 50% whiskey barrels which are then blended back together after 16 months.  Although we’ve only yet poured this wine at a few private events, I can’t think of a new wine release anytime in the recent past that has had our staff quite so excited.  Our staff will surely purchase the bulk of this wine if the hype continues.  Also: be warned!  Dusk clocks in at 17.9% alcohol and 29 g/l residual sugar, which is to say that this is not so much a “picnic wine” as it is a “sitting fireside with existential dilemmas” wine.

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.