AWG Correspondent

James Houston

Sunset Hills Photos

Sunset Hills Review

Regions: Middleburg Virginia AVA, Virginia

Reviewed: July 13, 2012 by James Houston
Published: July 17, 2012

A connection to the past is palpable as you enter the cavernous tasting room of Sunset Hills Vineyard. During the Civil War, many barns in Loudoun County were burned to the ground by Union forces. After peace returned, new structures were built as the farming industry recovered. The dairy farm that eventually became Sunset Hills Vineyard was rebuilt in 1870.

But there are also nods to modernity, such as the aerators affixed to every bottle of red wine behind the large tasting counter, or the tech fortune that made the winery possible in the first place. Entrepreneur Mike Canney—whose company Intelligence Data Systems was #88 on the prestigious Inc. 500 list, and was recognized as the fastest growing company in Virginia five years running (2000-2004)—bought the property in 2005 with wife Diane.

Their entrepreneurial go-getter instincts have clearly produced results, both in the wines, which have won over 40 medals in the first six years of production, and the tasting room itself, which won the “Makeover” category in the 2012 Signatures of Loudoun Design Excellence competition.

To imagine that it was only recently a dilapidated Amish barn is tough to wrap your mind around as you stand at the tasting counter. The space feels like the lobby of a fancy mountain resort with people enjoying wine, cheese and crackers and other goodies on both the “ground” floor and up in the loft.

“We see ourselves as wine educators,” says Elizabeth Sedlins, the friendly majordomo of the tasting room. This is more than idle talk, evidenced by Sunset Hills’ numerous educational programs and events, such as blind comparisons of a single varietal from different parts of the world—a recent one challenged attendees to understand the differences between Cabernet Franc wines from France, California and Virginia.

French winemaking heritage is key to the ethos of Sunset Hills. Virtually all their plantings (Albarino being the notable exception) are of grapes that originated in France. Winemaker and vineyard manager Nate Walsh brings a diverse background to each glass, having worked at wineries in Oregon and New Zealand before becoming one of the youngest head winemakers in Virginia.

But his wines are certainly evocative of the elegant, earthy vinification that distinguishes French wines year after year. I was especially impressed by his Rosé 2011, a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot made in the classic Provençal saignée method. Pungent and redolent of ripe red cherries, it is in perfect balance and manages to sneak in a hint of sweetness that is surprisingly inoffensive.

Also look out for the Chardonnay 2011, fermented in stainless steel. Made from some of the farm’s oldest vines, you would not believe that 2011 was a difficult vintage in Virginia (which it was) from tasting this steely, crisp lightning bolt of a wine that bursts with tropical and stone fruit flavors that balance fantastic acidity.

As I taste through the wines, I am impressed with Sedlins’ ability to field all my winemaking questions in Walsh’s absence. On the rare occasions when I do stump her she reaches under the counter for a thick binder of technical information on each wine. This is a nice touch that more tasting rooms should consider implementing.

On my way out she points to a Darth Vader-esque surface of solar panels on the south-facing roof of the winery. The 154 panels will produce all the winery’s electricity, cementing its status as a local leader in green initiatives. Additionally, the vineyards are “dry farmed”, meaning man-made irrigation is eschewed in favor of rainwater. The winery and barrel room are designed to maximize natural cooling and minimize the need for refrigeration.

Sunset Hills may be connected to the past, but it is looking towards the future.

Address & Contact Information: 38295 Fremont Overlook Lane Purcellville, Virginia 20132. Telephone: 540-882-4560, email:, website: Tasting Hours: Mon-Thurs 12:00-5:00, Fri 12:00-6:00, Sat-Sun 12:00-6:00.

Overall Rating:  

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