Tasting at Sunset Hills Vineyards

Readers may recall that the last time we were at Sunset Hills Vineyards, we found ourselves blending away at a wine-blending session with winemaker Nate Walsh.  This time around we resumed our familiar roles as bloggers at the tasting bar with gold stars at the ready.

Of the white wines, our favorite was the 2009 Viognier which was done in stainless steel; however, it possesses a heavier mouth feel that some tasters might associate with light treatment on oak.  It presented a lovely nose of honeysuckle and peach.  Flavors of peach and honey prevailed, too.  Those who favor Burgundian-style Chardonnays might prefer the buttery 2008 Reserve Chardonnay with its pear and almond notes.

We reached a split decision on the red wines.  I presented my gold star to the 2008 Cabernet Franc with its rich dark berry and black pepper flavors.  Tannins were certainly noticeable, too.  Aged in both American and French oak for two years, this Cabernet Franc has enough body to pair with heavier steak meals.  Paul’s award went to the 2008 Merlot with its layers of dark cherries, plums and spice.  It’s blended with a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon which accounts for the complexity and tannic presence. 

With the record-breaking heat we’ve experienced this summer, light sippers might be more popular than fuller-bodied wines.  The fruity 009 Sunset White with its floral nose might fit the bill as well as the crisp 2009 Sunset Rose with its strawberry aromas.  It’s quite dry and should be a versatile pour, too.  Pair this one with anything from picnic fare to barbeque. 

Of course, we were hungry after our tasting, and we availed ourselves to the gourmet food basket that included French bread, a cheese selection, and Italian meats.  I let Paul select the wine, and I was not surprised when he opted for the 2008 Merlot. We sipped away out on the shady veranda and observed butterflies, dragonflies, cardinals, and blue jays as the fluttered about the grounds. 

With lunch consumed and bottles purchased, we bid our farewells to Sunset Hills Vineyard with promises to return.  Check out the current offerings at Sunset Hills Vineyard, and mention that Virginia Wine Time sent you.

Winemaker For A Day

Readers may recall that we recently visited Sunset Hills Vineyard, and we were quite impressed with their lineup of wines. We then decided to participate in a subsequent blending session which featured Cabernet Franc as the dominant varietal. How did we do? Well, it was not an easy task, and we had to sample lots of wine to get our blend just right; however, we also had to compete with other amateur winemakers that day. The competition was fierce!

Participants were grouped and then seated at various tables in the tasting room, and each table was given the label of a certain wine producing region. For example, one table was called the “Napa” table; our table was the Virginia table! (Yes, it was purely coincidental.) Anyway, our winemaking partners were Troi and Derick. We all hit it off right away, and we quickly found out that Trois is a fan of local wines from Virginia and Maryland. With introductions completed, we were all eager to sip and blend. Our first samples were four tastings of Cabernet Franc picked from two different lots. An added twist was that the samples from each lot were then aged in different oak barrels—new American oak, French oak, and Hungarian oak. The Virginia table gravitated toward the French oak and Hungarian oak samples. We found these to be more fruit-forward with a softer oak finish. The sample from American oak tended to present more blackberry flavors with a noticeable woodsy character.

As we sipped, we took extensive notes so that we could compliment our favorite Cabernet Franc with an appropriate blend of other wines. Since the final product will be a Cabernet Franc, the blends had to include at least 75% Cabernet Franc. With this in minds, the Virginia table was ready to blend away, and we were presented with four other samples once we were done with our Cabernet Franc. These other samples included two offerings of the ’08 Cabernet Sauvignon from Tranquility Vineyard (each were treated with different yeasts), a 2009 Merlot from Sunset Hill Vineyard, and a 2008 Petit Verdot from Breaux Vineyards. What did we conclude? We all really enjoyed the Cabernet Franc samples and opted to create a 90% blend from the French and Hungarian oak tastings with a greater proportion coming from the French oak product. We then blended in 7% from the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (yeast sample #1) and 3% from the jammy, spicy 2008 Petit Verdot. Our final blend presented layers of mixed berries in the mouth with some violet and spice on the nose—the Virginia table was very pleased!

However, the other tables were also madly blending with pipettes and beakers operating at full speed. When all tables were done, we then had to sample all of the final blends and vote on our favorites. Without getting into the tasting notes for each blend, I’ll simply reveal that our particular blend place third out of the ten blends produced. The top-rated blend as well as the second place blend also favored the Cabernet Franc from the French and Hungarian oak barrels but in different proportions; though I was rooting strongly for the Virginia table’s blend, I did have to admit that the winning blend was the indeed the best. In fact, winemaker Nate Walsh revealed that the winning blend was very close to the one currently used to create the award-winning Cabernet Franc Reserve.

So we tried our hand at blending red wines, and we now understand how difficult a task it is to complete. We were intrigued by how different the same varietal, Cabernet Franc, tasted when produced from a different lot and aged in a different oak barrel. Terroir and winemaking methods do indeed make the wine! We also enjoyed meeting new friends Troi and Derick, and we hope to meet up with them on the wine trail soon.

Pay a visit to Sunset Hills Vineyard, and mention that Virginia Wine Time sent you.

Springtime at Sunset Hills

Now the weather has warmed up, we’re officially back on the wine trail, and we celebrated an early spring-like weekend at Sunset Hills Vineyard.  We were impressed with the lineup of wines there on the last visit, and we were eager to sample the latest releases.

We continue to be pleased with the quality of wines produced at Sunset Hills, and we know that owners Diane and Mike Canney are dedicated to vigilant maintenance of the vineyards.  Winemaker Nate Walsh likewise remains committed to the craft of winemaking, and the results are evident in the bottle.  In fact, we were hard pressed to find any wines that were truly weak—all were well-crafted.  Our hardest choices were deciding which wines would earn the coveted gold star awards!

Our tasting began with the white wines, and tasting room manager Christine started us off with wine glasses and pours. The white wines were all very solid.  Paul’s own favorite and gold star winner was the 2008 Unoaked Chardonnay.  Full pear flavors with a twist of citrus made for a pleasing wine, and the cold fermentation in stainless steel tanks made for a crisp wine. My own gold star, though, was presented to the bolder 2008 Reserve Chardonnay which was aged nine months in French oak. I noted ripe pear and honey flavors with a buttery texture—just my kind of Chardonnay!  Be assured that there was the requisite “toastiness” but not in an overwhelming sense.  I’d sip this one on its own but would serve the 2008 Reserve Chardonnay with poultry, pork or shellfish especially if cream sauces were involved.  Not to be outdone, though is the lush 2008 Viognier that is begging for a crabcake dinner.  Look out for the Sunset White which is a blend of 90% stainless steel Chardonnay and 10% Viognier that was aged in neutral French oak barrels.  Christine obliged us with a sampling of this very slightly sweet with (1.5% residual sugar).  This one should be a perfect summer sipper or picnic wine. 

Before we moved on to the reds, Christine also surprised us with another sneak preview, and that was the Sunset Rose.  Here we found our Wolftrap wine!  We’re big Wolftrap fans, and we’re already stocking up on our concert wines—a bottle of this rose will be coming along for music under the stars.  Nate Walsh had been diligent in his preparation of this rose which he made from Cabernet Franc.  Its clear pink color suggested a crisper wine, and a .5% residual sugar provided a refreshing feel.  Cool strawberry and melon flavors were noted.

Now on to the red wines!  More solid pours and very tough decisions.  However, Paul did award his gold star to the lighter-bodied 2008 Benevino Cabernet Franc with its distinctive minerality and cherry flavors.  Easy to drink and perfect to sip on its own, the Benevino Cabernet Franc should also prove to be a pleaser with pizza or a sampling of dry meats and roasted nuts.  My own decision was likewise not easy, but I did end up favoring the 2007 Reserve Cabernet Franc with its layers of blackberries, raspberries, spice, and mocha.  Aged for 18 months in both French and American oak, it also presented a lengthier finish. I’d favor a leg of lamb with this one!  A close second for me was the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon with its dark fruit characteristics and spicy edge.  Enjoy with a rib roast!

Diane Canney poured most of our red wines, and she was able to share with us the secret to Sunset Hill’s success.  Diane and husband Mike place a priority on vineyard management, and they use such Old World methods as hand sorting to make certain that only quality fruit from the best lots are used to produce their wines.  They’re also confident in their young winemaker, Nate Walsh, who began his career in the Virginia wine industry at Horton Vineyards.  Joined by a quality tasting room team, Sunset Hills Vineyards seems destined for even greater success.

Of course, we were hungry, and we opted to enjoy some of the viands from the “Lite Fare” menu offered at Sunset Hills Vineyard.  We selected the deli-style pepperoni with manchego cheese and crusty French break.  Our wine of choice?  The 2008 Benevino Cabernet Franc.  We enjoyed lunch and wine in the cozy Amish farmhouse that serves as the tasting room.

We left Sunset Hills Vineyard with several bottles of favorite pours, and we will return quite soon.  In fact, we plan to attend a blending session to be held next Sunday; so, stay tuned!  In the meantime, maybe we’ll see some of our readers at Sunset Hills.  Be sure, though, to tell Christine or Diane that Virginia Wine Time sent you.