Winemaker for a Day at Sunset Hills

Hello Friends,

I recently jumped on the Loudoun County wine trail and a paid a visit to Sunset Hills Vineyard to attend their “Winemaker for a Day” event. This popular event allows a [Virginia] wine lover like myself to get out from behind the desk and uncork some of the artful ingenuity that goes into making a fine bottle of Virginia wine.

Sunset Hills Vineyard

We were placed into small groups and led by winemaker Nate Walsh. My group’s name was “Cabernet Franc” and our task was to craft a blend out of the following barrel / tank samples: 2009 Cabernet Franc (extended maceration) from Sunset Hills, 2009 Cabernet Franc from Benevino Vineyards, 2009 Merlot from Sunset Hills, 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009 Petit Verdot, and a 2009 Tannat.

Winemaker For A Day

The two Cabernet Franc wines and Merlot showed potential and were easy-drinking. The Merlot was the most complete of the bunch. One of the Cabernet Franc wines we tasted offered more charm and character on the nose, but was neutral on the palate. The other Cabernet Franc lacked aromatics, but had bright red fruit on the palate. The Cabernet Sauvignon displayed moderate structure, but was a bit closed. The Petit Verdot displayed a dark color and nice violet-like aromas, whereas the Tannat offered a deep color, firm tannins, neutral flavors, and toasty impressions. As you can see, we were very much artists, using the sample wines as liquid paint to craft a blend that would be more interesting and complex than any of the wines on their own.
Click on video below

Blending is important in Virginia since there is so much variation in the growing season from one vintage to the next. One year a grower’s early ripening varieties may shine and the next year the late ripening varieties may be the stars. This plays a vital role in the final blend and how the gaps are filled to produce a high-quality wine. For example, if a winemaker feels his/her wine is lacking color and/or structure, a splash of Petit Verdot may be the answer. Many varietal wines are also blends. By law, a varietal wine must have a minimum of 75% of that particular grape. Therefore, a Cabernet Franc can have 25% of something else in it and still be labeled Cabernet Franc. The trick with varietal wines and blending is ensuring that the grape on the label tastes like the wine in the bottle. Wines like Petit Verdot can overwhelm other varieties if not blended judiciously.

Gorgeous view from the deck

Given the diverse selection of wines we had to work with, our blend could have ranged from an easy-drinking wine to something more bold and assertive. Our blend started off with 50% Merlot, since that was the most complete wine and provided a good foundation. After adding 25% Cabernet Franc and equal amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, the result was a supple wine with moderate complexity on the nose and palate. My group was looking for a steak wine, however, and the overall consensus was to aim for something big and mouth-filling. As one gentleman in the group put it, “I like to feel my wine go all the way down.” Needless to say, the “red meat” crowd wanted to increase the percentage of Petit Verdot and add some Tannat. Our final blend consisted of 35% Merlot, 30% Petit Verdot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc (extended maceration), and 5% Tannat. In the end, we crafted a deep colored wine with cedar and toasty oak accents, firm tannins, and round soft fruit. I personally would have preferred a little more elegance, but the push for bigger and bolder prevailed. We all split a case of this blend, and when the wine is ready for pick-up, I’m sure we will all enjoy the wine with a good steak and remember the fun we had making it. In closing, keep an eye on Sunset Hill’s website and join their mailing list, friends. They offer a number of entertaining and enlightening wine events that you will want to take advantage of. Have a question about this post, friends? Feel free to leave a comment or send me an e-mail at, and as always, Happy Sipping! Stay tuned friends ...More to come!

Check out the solar panels.  Making wine with sunshine!

Info: Sunset Hills Vineyard, 38295 Fremont Overlook Lane, Purcellville, VA 20132

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