Sunset Hills Blog
Welcome to the blog of Sunset Hills Vineyard! From the trials of hand-tending vines in five different vineyards to releasing wines that our winemaker has carefully crafted, our goal is to share what’s going on at Sunset Hills with you! We hope that you’ll gain knowledge and find entertainment from this blog. Located in Purcellville, Sunset Hills is a proud producer of high-quality wine in Loudoun County wine country.
Bottling day – it’s exciting, stressful, and fast-paced. As the first wines of the 2017 vintage are completed, our team toasts each other with a glass of bubbly in celebration of coming full circle on the first vintage together. We looked back at harvest and laughed at how many lugs of fruit it took to make the 800 cases of Sunset White we just bottled (It was about 800 lugs). We thought of all the time spent tracking fermentations, moving wine from tank to barrel, and of course cleaning equipment - all that time spent just to get to the finish line of bottling day. Even the weeks leading up to bottling day are a frenzy of blending, stabilizing, and filtering. Finally, bottling day arrives. We bottled 1,807 total cases, that’s 21,684 bottles!
It’s a long day and it starts early. A typical day of bottling looks like this:
6:00am: The truck arrives while the sun just barely begins to glow. Coffee in hand, hazy from the morning darkness, I pep up as the generator spurs the bottling truck to life.
6:01am: Full on bottling mode has taken hold of me.
6:02--6:45am: The bottling guys do a test run with a case of bottles, corks, capsules, and labels to calibrate their machines.
6:45am: The rest of the cellar crew arrives and more coffee is a necessity. The first tank is connected to the bottling truck and bottling begins!
7:00am--4:30pm: Unload, fill, reload, stack. Repeat 1,807 more times.
4:30--5:00pm: Clean up time.
The people: We have five positions on the bottling line.
First is the forklift operator. They’re the person that makes sure everyone has what they need, when they need it, where they need it. He supplies the empty cases that are loaded on the truck. He takes the palettes of full cases and stacks them away in the barrel room.
Second is the glass unloader. This person stands on the truck, takes the cases of empty bottles, flips them onto the bottling line’s conveyor, lifts the box off of the upright bottles, and watches as the bottles get taken away further into the abyss of the bottling line.
Third is the box filler. This person also stands on the truck. He is the final check of the full bottles. Labels are straight? Check. Bottles are corked and capsuled? Check. There is actually wine in the bottle? Check. The completed bottles are then placed back into the cases and sent down another conveyor.
The fourth and fifth person stand at the end of this conveyor to receive the full cases. They trade places labeling and stacking the cases.
The in between: So where does the actual bottling take place? Once the glass unloader sends the empty bottles onto the truck, that is where all the action happens. The bottles get flipped upside down and filled with nitrogen to protect against oxidation. The bottles are then circled around in merry-go-round like fashion and filled to the correct level. Next, they get the screw caps spun on. The last step is labeling--the front and back label are adjusted by the slightest millimeters and put on the bottle. Finally, the long conveyor takes the bottles around the back of the machine where they leave the truck and are placed safely back into their case.
Although stressful, bottling day is a relief. We are happy to see our product completed, our hard work paid off. Now we can enjoy the finished product and look forward to the next bottling in May!
Valentine’s Day is right around the corner! How will you wine and dine your Valentine during love’s special holiday? Sunset Hills Vineyard has a wine recommendation that will pair beautifully with your Valentine’s Day celebrations. A Virginia winery located in the heart of Loudoun County’s wine country, Sunset Hills Vineyard produces a variety of award-winning 100% Virginia wines, including a Valentine’s Day favorite – Rosé!
To know rosé is to love rosé, so what exactly is this pink wine all about? Corry Craighill, Sunset Hills Vineyard’s Winemaker, breaks down the method behind rosé and how Sunset Hills’ three rosés can enrich your Valentine’s Day experience.
The modern rosé has come so far since it became popular in the early 70’s in California. An accidental stuck fermentation resulted in a new product for a west coast winery, creating the white zinfandel rampage. This pink zinfandel is known for being overly sweet, an easy entry into the vast world of wine. The evolution from white zinfandel to our modern rosé has left us with wines that are fresh, often dry, and easy to pair with food. Everyone has to start somewhere in their journey of wine, so keep tasting pink wine because there are some great rosés out there!
Winemakers and winegrowers have come so far in the production of rosé. They have created a plethora of styles and colors from the variety of red grapes out there. Some varietals you enjoy as red wines can also be used in rosé. For example, at Sunset Hills Vineyard we use Cabernet Franc for our Estate Rosé of Cabernet Franc and also in our Bordeaux-style red, Mosaic. Several factors play into what style of rosé we go for—grape variety, pick date, length of skin contact, and more.
First impressions are crucial. More than any other wine, rosé color sets the stage before any other senses come into play. Are you drawn to the pale pink of Provence? Or the ruby hue of a Grenache rosé? Whether you are hypnotized by the color or would rather leave the judgement to your taste buds, one cannot deny noticing the variety of colors of rosés in the world. As for aroma and taste, rosé can really run the full spectrum. Because rosé can be made from any red variety of grape, the flavors and aromas can range from luscious sweet strawberries to citrusy grapefruit to tangy rhubarb.
At Sunset Hills, we make three different types of rosé —Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc, and a sparkling rosé. Why make three you ask? Besides the clear love for rosé, this gives us the flexibility of style both in the cellar and for your taste buds. If you prefer a lush cherry, full-bodied wine, go for our Sunset Rosé made from Chambourcin. If you want to drink like the French, pick the more pale, light Estate Rosé of Cabernet Franc.
Let’s start with our Sunset Rosé — a super fruity, lush, broad rosé made from the Chambourcin grape that pairs well with that picnic you have planned for Saturday afternoon at the winery. With all three rosés, we pick earlier than we would if we were making red wine to retain the natural acidity. This helps keep the wine tasting crisp and fresh! We destem the fruit, separating the grapes from the stems, then send it directly to the press. We like to limit our skin contact with Chambourcin because the color is so brilliant right out of the vineyard. Afterwards, it ferments in a stainless steel tank at cool temperatures in order to maintain the vibrant aromatics.
Next is our Estate Rosé of Cabernet Franc! Much like the Chambourcin, we pick the Cabernet Franc grapes early, but this time we encourage the juice to leach out the color from the skins by letting the crushed berries sit in their own juice for eight hours, a process called maceration. Allowing the juice and skins to macerate gives us a warm pink color and some fruity flavors like a subtle tart cranberry and juicy strawberries on the finish. After this maceration period, everything is pressed and the process continues like the Sunset Rosé—stainless steel fermentation at cool temperatures.
Are you seeing a trend here? Winemaking is simple really! Now for the sparkling. Our sparkling rosé, Dawn, is a Chambourcin-based wine. Made in the traditional méthode champenoise, it takes the wine several steps farther. Once we have the base rosé wine, we add another starter yeast culture to the wine in tank. The next step is to simultaneously mix the tank and bottle the wine. We want to ensure an even distribution of the yeast so that every bottle will ferment at the same pace. The second fermentation that takes place inside the bottles releases carbon dioxide, making the rosé slightly carbonated with small bubbles. The effervescence of Dawn makes for a light, refreshing take on rosé.
Now that you know a little more about Sunset Hills rosé, let’s get to drinking. With Valentine’s Day ahead of us, what a perfect wine that not only dresses the part but pairs well with many foods. Because of the broad spectrum of styles, you can grab a full-bodied, structured rosé to go with a juicy steak or a lean, crisp rosé to pair with those early evening appetizers.
In the last post, I explained what is going on in the cellar in these cold winter months. I want to delve deeper into a topic that I briefly touched on. Malolactic fermentation is a process that I get a lot of questions about--not only what is it, but what effect does it have on a wine’s profile and misinterpretations of the effects of this process.
*MLF is short for malolactic fermentation
Let’s start with a few facts:
- MLF is a bacterial fermentation (*Remember: alcoholic fermentation is when yeast convert sugar into alcohol, ie how we get from grapes to wine).
- MLF is the conversion of malic acid to lactic acid. You can remember this by M→L fermentation, MLF! Think green apple for malic acid and butter, cream, or just a general softness for lactic acid. This conversion changes the overall texture of the wine. We will cover this in detail later in the post.
- MLF usually happens at the tail end or after alcoholic fermentation is complete
- A winemaker can either inoculate with bacteria OR allow the fermentation to go through naturally. At Sunset Hills and 50 West, we do both--some barrels get inoculated and some are allowed to naturally complete the process. We do this to see how the wine interacts with the different strains of bacteria--two types of commercial and au naturale.
- MLF will change the pH. For example, if your pre-MLF pH is 4.6, your post-MLF pH could be 4.7 or 4.75. This goes along with the texture change because the wine is now less acidic.
Let’s keep going with a few “usually” statements:
- MLF is usually used in red wine production. Remember in the facts part above, lactic acid is associated with a general softness of texture, we want our red wine to be smooth for our consumers. One way to work towards a smooth wine is to put it through MLF.
- MLF can be used in white wine production. This is a stylistic choice of the winemaker. For young, acid-driven wines MLF may not be the best option. Never say never, but I will mostly likely never put the 50 West Chardonnay or the Sunset Hills Sunset White through MLF because I want them to remain edgy with an attitude and bright in their acidity. However, I always put at least some of the Chardonnay for both properties through MLF to give texture and different blending components. MLF can add complexity when used on the right wine!
- MLF DOES NOT produce an oaky wine, it can produce a buttery wine but is not guaranteed to deliver buttery notes. This is the most common misconception I hear in the tasting room. I repeat, MLF does not mean your wine will be flabby, buttery, or creamy. Instead, MLF can add complexity, depth, and roundness to a wine. Also, oakiness comes from oak barrels. Why is MLF important?
- Malolactic fermentation is important because not only does it change the texture of the wine, it also gives the wine stability. Once the wine is complete with both alcoholic and malolactic fermentation, we want the environment to be a desert--no more sugar, no more malic acid, nothing for any volatile to develop wine faults.
How do we track MLF?
We try to track MLF on a weekly basis. There are two methods we use here at Sunset Hills/50 West. First is chromotography. After taking samples of barrels we want to test, we use a tiny capillary tube to drop the sample on the bottom of the paper. We then roll the paper up and place it in a solvent that over the course of several hours, will travel up the paper. Then we pull the paper out, let it dry, and can read the results. If all of the yellow dots have travelled to the top of the paper, we know that the level of malic acid is less than 0.2g/L. However, our goal is actually 0.02g/L! This leads us to our second method: enzymatic testing. Using our new spectrophotometer, we can get qualitative numbers.
In short, chromotography allows us to see the process of MLF is (or is not) taking place over time. The enzymatic testing gives us actual numbers to see exactly how many g/L of malic we have left. Once we get to 0.02g/L, then we can call the process complete and add sulfur to the barrels.
Peynaud, Emile. Knowing and Making Wine. Wiley, 1984.
The Basics in Grape and Wine Chemistry. Nathan J. Sikes Bl.Arch.
The cellar to-do list is still quite long: top all 350 barrels, watch malolactic fermentation trudge on, clean the residual grape matter still plastered to the sorting table, all the while preparing for the first bottling of the year. Yes, the hours have relaxed, but the work goes on.
First thing’s first--the new wine. For whites, we are focused on finishing out the last bit of residual sugar in order to catch the wine before malolactic fermentation takes off. In reds, we encourage malolactic fermentation to go through on every single barrel. Side note: Malolactic fermentation is a secondary fermentation that converts malic acid (tart) to lactic acid (creamy). Once the wines are at the appropriate stage, we will add a small amount of sulphur to each barrel. We do this in order to protect the wine from oxidation or any other bacterial growth. Afterwards, every barrel will get topped, tightly bunged, and put to bed.
Then we look backwards. The pieces for 2016 Mosaic, Reserve Cabernet Franc, and Aldie Heights Cuvee are still patiently waiting to be tasted, tested, and blended. For me, blending is one of the more “fun winemaker” tasks that my job entails. It is the romantic part--the part that my friends, family, and neighbors think I do on a regular basis. Challenges do arise though! Analyzing the differences between barrels and vigorously taking notes for every sniff, swirl, and spit. Finding the balance of structure, body, acidity, length, fruit integrity, and age-ability for each wine when you have seemingly endless options to choose from--THAT can be challenging.
While 2017 may be coming to a close, the products of this year’s harvest will be stored in the cellar patiently waiting their next step in 2018!
In recent events, our 2013 Mosaic and 2016 Viognier competed in the Loudoun Wine Awards. This year marks the competition’s third event, one attended by winemakers, growers, restaurant owners, writers and avid wine drinkers alike. The competition seeks to highlight wines that are distinct in quality and are terroir-driven. The awards are broken down into several categories, with one overall winner at the end known as the Grand Chairman’s Award. It also presents individuals in the Loudoun region that are making a special impact on our industry. This awards ceremony proves that Loudoun is marked by high quality and improving winemaking and vineyard growth, passionate industry teams, and a vast following of dedicated supporters.
Upon receiving awards for Best in Class for both the 2016 Viognier and the 2013 Mosaic, as well as the Grand Chairman’s Award for the 2016 Viognier, I would like to give a little more insight into these wines.
The 2013 Mosaic is a wine that hopes to demonstrate the best of the vintage, a blend of select barrels from our most successful vineyard sites. The 2013 in particular is 100% Sunset Hills Estate fruit. For those that are familiar with our vineyard sites, the fruit came predominantly from Vineyard #1 and #3. A lighter crop yield than previous years, these vineyards were able to focus on a smaller amount of fruit which led to better concentration, more even ripening, and balanced end product. In the cellar, the wine was treated to about 15% new oak--a combination of French, American, and Hungarian.
The 2016 Viognier, the overall winner of the Loudoun Wine Awards known as the Grand Chairman’s Award, was described as “a powerful presentation without lacking elegance, a nice play between acid and fruit, and a lovely pure expression of this wine.” This wine I can speak about more personally, as it marks my first vintage here at Sunset Hills and in Loudoun County. This fascination of Viognier was passed on to me by the previous winemaker, Nate Walsh, winner of the Winemaker of the Year. He took the ripening of the fruit very seriously--urging me to wait on the caramel taste in the fruit and to (almost) ignore the chemistry we saw in the lab (see previous blog post for picking decisions). That patience paid off, as the wine developed into a well-balanced yet powerfully expressive Viognier. Aged 100% in neutral oak for about six months, the wine continues to improve with time in bottle.
Overall, it was a great insight into the local industry here. So much buzz surrounding all of the wines showcased that evening. So much talent, passion, verve, and respect. I am so thankful that I have found my way to this community of people, and I hope to continue to take part in this growing industry.
With this type of weather, we have the luxury to decide when to pick. Some vintages, we are checking multiple weather stations daily to see which weatherman can offer us the most optimistic forecast only to find that the 80% chance of rain causes a hurried picking spree. Luckily, after the rains that started out September were over, the forecasts have been quite pleasant. Our vines are basking in this 80--90 degree weather. Sure, we could ask for cooler nights to retain that acidity, but I will take sunshine over rain any autumn day.
Other than weather, we are walking our vineyards on a regular basis to look and taste for ripeness. As verasion hits, the fruit gets softer, more plump and sweet. As the sugar levels rise, the pH also continues to inch upwards causing the fruit to become less acidic with ripening. Balance--it is all about balance. We are looking and tasting for the balance between sugar levels and acidity, between taste, texture, and numbers.
What do I mean by numbers? When we walk the vineyards, we often take a random berry sampling of the vineyard. Every few steps, pause, grab a berry, and throw it in a bag. Up and down a few rows, and you have quite the sample! Back to the lab, we crush the fruit in the bag to get the juice in order to test the Brix (the sugar content) and pH.
As a young winemaker new to the area and to our vineyards, I hope to learn more about the nuances that each site can bring. Sometimes the picking decisions also depend on location. For example, last year we picked one of our Cabernet Franc sites in three sections--top of the hill, the slope, and the bottom of the hill. The slope, with better sun exposure than the bottom and the best drainage, gave us the most complex wine. It has a clean texture, a depth and complexity that the other sections fall just short of.
These types of picking decisions can really affect the wine. With good weather in sight, we are continuing to balance taste, chemistry, and site selection. Keep an eye on our Facebook page for harvesting updates!
Corry Craighill, winemaker at Sunset Hills and 50 West Vineyards, celebrated her 1st anniversary last month! She started as the Assistant Winemaker under Nate Walsh, the former winemaker, and learned how he made wine during his time with the vineyards. Once Nate decided to pursue his passions with wine, Corry stepped into the role of winemaker for the vineyards and has been working diligently to make the wines you love while also bringing in exciting new blends!
Corry sat down to share more about her background in the wine industry and what she foresees being trendy in 2018. Read on for some previews of what’s to come for Sunset Hills Vineyard!
When Traveling Leads to Finding Your Passion
While studying at the University of Virginia, Corry worked in the tasting room at Jefferson Vineyards. Interested in this industry, she decided to pursue winemaking instead of going to grad school.
After deciding that the wine industry was her passion, Corry worked for several wineries in the Monticello area. Blenheim and King Family were where she gained most of her experience. As assistant winemaker at both wineries, she discovered her passion for winemaking, gained invaluable experience to start her career and made connections that would have her traveling all over the world to learn more. From Australia, to South Africa, to New Zealand, to France, Corry was fortunate enough to learn new skills and techniques from prestigious winemaking regions of the world.
Learning More Outside of the Classroom
Traveling and working opened Corry’s eyes to how winemaking tasks can be done 100 different ways and produce a unique result each time. Each time she met a new winemaker, she could evaluate what was important to them. How do other winemakers build their barrel program? How do they determine maceration and press cut decisions? How did they let the vineyard be expressed in the finished product? She’s taken this knowledge and has applied it to winemaking in Virginia.
Here’s a Quick Q&Rosé on Corry’s Favorites:
• Favorite Overall Wine Region You’ve Visited? Central Otago, New Zealand
• Favorite Wine Style Region? Swartland, South Africa
• Favorite Place for Food and Wine Pairings? France
• Favorite Wine to Try in All Regions? Pinot Noir
• Favorite Sunset Hills and 50 West Vineyards’ Wines? Sunset Hills Reserve Cabernet Franc and 50 West Chardonnay
What’s the Difference Between the Wines at Sunset Hills and 50 West?
One of the most asked questions at both vineyards – what makes the wine different at each location? It’s a fair question! Between five vineyards and one production facility, just how does Corry keep the wines unique between the two properties?
Sunset Hills Vineyard offers high quality classic Virginia wines including Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. While these are all well received and award-winning wines, Corry has spotted areas of opportunity to continually improve these varietals in future vintages while maintaining their integrity.
As for 50 West Vineyards, Corry is working diligently to make staples out of a few varietals that are less known in Virginia. Her main area of focus? Sauvignon Blanc and Albariño. With 2016 being the second vintage of these two white wines, guests and people in the industry are starting to take notice. The 2016 Albariño just received a silver medal at the Loudoun Wine Awards. An additional area of focus in 50 West wine making has been the red blends. Each vintage of the Aldie Heights Cuvée medaled at the Virginia Governor’s Cup and a new red blend, Ashby Gap Red, is set to release later this month.
2018: Looking to the Year Ahead
As 2017 Harvest gets under way at the five vineyards Corry and her team manage, she’s already making plans for every cluster that comes off the vine. Of course, the majority will go into making favorites like Cab Franc, Viognier, Rosé, and others, there are plenty of grapes that Corry has enough to experiment with. She looks forward to trying her hand at a Pétillant Naturel, or Pét-Nat, for short. This natural, light, and slightly sparkling wine is bottled shortly before the first fermentation finishes and undergoes a second fermentation off of the natural sugars and yeast while in the bottle. If this is successful, 2018 may bring a small batch of Pét-Nat wine exclusive for the wine club members.
Corry Craighill continues to learn and grow as a winemaker. Virginia is fortunate to have someone who is dedicated to continually producing wines that can be respected by wine enthusiasts from all over. She continues to grow her skills of winemaking through emerging herself in the vast wine industry.
It’s been a really hot summer but that didn’t stop fifteen enthusiastic participants from joining myself and Quintin, our Vineyard Manager, for our second installment of the Follow the Grape series. Lathered in sunscreen and energetic from the morning’s coffee, our fantastic attendees were rearing to learn the details of exposing the fruit zone. Quintin and I were very happy to teach them and have the extra help in the vineyard!
A quick introduction and off we went into the vines. Quintin shared the importance of allowing the fruit to bask in the sunlight throughout the growing season--decrease disease pressure via increased air flow and ease of drying out. Teams of four ripped and plucked their way down each row, stepping back at each vine to make sure the job had been done right.
This time of year, canopy management is the number one focus in the vineyard. Tucking vines into place, leaf pulling to clear the fruit zone, and hedging the tops to keep vines in check are all important to maintain a healthy and easy-to-manage vineyard. The goal is to have a balanced canopy - one that allows for air flow to reduce moisture retention and also to have enough healthy leaves to ripen the fruit through harvest.
At the row’s completion, it was time for a little international education. The group met me in our stone library for a quick presentation on canopies from around the world. Accompanied by a flight of wine (Maison Shaps, 2015 Bourgogne Rose; Mullineux, 2012 Syrah; Sunset Hills, 2016 Viognier; Sunset Hills, 2016 V1 Chardonnay), the crew was happy to listen to me share what I had learned about bush vines in South Africa and towering tractors in Burgundy. Curious what a towering tractor is? Check out this video.
Welcome to the blog of Sunset Hills Vineyard!
From the trials of hand-tending vines in five different vineyards to releasing wines that our winemaker has carefully crafted, our goal is to share what’s going on at Sunset Hills with you! We hope that you’ll gain knowledge and find entertainment from this blog.
Each month we’ll post an entry authored by various personalities from around the vineyard. Keep an eye out for our first entry in early July. In the meantime, follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SunsetHillsVineyard