50 West Blog
Welcome to the blog of 50 West Vineyards! 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 50 West with you! We hope that you’ll gain knowledge and find entertainment from this blog. Located in Middleburg, right outside of Aldie, Virginia, 50 West Vineyards is a proud producer of high-quality wine in Loudoun County wine country.
The mind of a cellar hand is constantly in motion. Although there are some tasks that require absolute concentration, there are also a great deal of tasks that simply require good work ethic and elbow grease. Whether it be throwing lugs, scrubbing those pesky tartrates off the inside of tanks, or simply maintaining and cleaning our cellar equipment, one is left with hours of deep and profitable thought. In fact, when my knee-high waterproof boots go on, my mind begins to race against its self. I ask myself the deepest questions in life. “What do I want to do with my life? How do I want to impact the world around me? What is it that provides happiness and fulfillment in peoples' lives? Where do I want to be in 20 years? Why did George Lucas sell out to Disney? If I could have one meal for the rest of my life, what would it be?” and so on. However, it's these important tasks that aid in our production of such quality wine.
As we approach harvest there is a great deal of prep work to be done. For a cellar hand, the name of the game is “Clean and Organize”. Once harvest hits there simply won't ever be enough hours in the day. That is why it is so important for us to prepare as much as we can now in the hopes that it will make the whole process easier and more efficient down the road. This starts with clearing out everything from the cellar that is not essential to the process of harvest. Once we have more space to maneuver the forklift, we organize and take stock of our empty barrels that will soon hold a new vintage of wine. This helps us to plan out what we believe to be the best barrels to use for the many different varieties of grapes that we grow.
Now, the real fun can begin. What most people don’t know is that a majority of cellar work is cleaning. The tanks, the equipment, the floors, and so on. Before we bring a single grape into the cellar we want to ensure that everthing is spotless and sanitized. Through a combination of power washing, squeegeeing, and a great deal of scrubbing we meet the rigged standards that we place upon ourselves. However, this process is not complete until one specific task is carried out. The cleaning of the drains. This ceremonial mission is considered a right of passage in the world of wine making. It’s what sorts out the strong from the weak, and the brave from the frightened. In the end, there is always a great deal of work and time that goes into every aspect of wine making. But it's all worth it to see the process of a grape traveling from a Virginia vine to a bottle. A final product that you can hold in your hand, share with others, and straight up appreciate the fruits of your labor.
About the Author - Jackson Cunningham joined the Sunset Hills team in August 2017. He is a great addition due to his work ethic, willingness to go with the flow, and sense of humor.
Our June bottling has been much anticipated since I started here at Sunset Hills and 50 West Vineyards. This bottling marks the first vintage of our flagship wines that I have created from start to finish - from grape to bottle. These wines have been waiting since October 2016 for this day, waiting in fermenters, waiting in tank, waiting in barrel, waiting to be blended. The physically tolling work is done--punch downs, pump overs, digging out the tanks or bins, pressing--all of laborious tasks have been completed long ago. Now, after months and months of waiting, it is time for the quiet task of blending to begin.
People ask how I got into winemaking. The short answer is that I wanted a job where I could work outside. Part of the long answer is that I love the combination of science and creativity. I spent several years working for a lab and winery in Charlottesville, so I learned not only HOW to run the numbers, but WHY they are important. To understand the science of wine, to me, is necessary in making a quality product. I am not a scientist, but I use the numbers to make the best decisions for the wine.
The other half is creativity. Wine is a creative outlet--tasting and exploring various types of wine from all over the world. This side of the business is what kept me in the business, what kept me exploring new countries, and what kept me asking questions. Creativity is a huge part of blending. Once the goal is set for a style of wine, my brain just takes off. With the help of detailed note taking throughout the year, I remember each batch of wine and try to plan for each blend ahead.
Mosaic is always first, you have to start somewhere. Mosaic is our Bordeaux-style wine, so I am looking for a balance of a finessed yet assertive structure, a rich and confident wine and one that is well balanced with acidity, tannins, and fruit. For the 2016 blend, I was able to lean more on our Shenandoah Valley site to give good structure and acidity, and the Sunset Hills site for volume. Creating this blend takes time. I created almost twenty blends, swirling and tasting blind, before I narrowed it down to four options. I took those four and sat on them for a few days--wondering if I would change my mind. My goal is to taste blindly and consistently pick the same blend every time. Luckily, blend 12 kept being my favorite. Not only tasting blind but tasting with other people is important to me. I choose individuals who I trust and can have a good conversation with--how can I improve the wine? What is the wine missing? How will the wine age? Having a community of people that you can taste with is so important! I can write a whole other post on how the wine community has impacted me, but for blending specifically, my colleagues provide feedback that helps me improve.
As for the Reserve Cabernet Franc, the style is lighter than the Mosaic, but more robust than the classic Cabernet Franc. A slightly heavier oak influence and bigger tannins provide the “reserve” label over the classic Cabernet Franc. Again, several blends are created in order to narrow it down to one. Tasting blind and tasting often.
Lastly, the 50 West Aldie Heights Cuvée. Although it is the third blend I make, it uses components that neither of the other wines use. With Tannat as its base, the Aldie Heights Cuvée is one of the more boisterous wines. Tannat is known for being high acid and high tannin, which makes it a great blending component for bigger wines. For the 2016 Aldie Heights Cuvée, it is the base making up 40% of the blend.
When the bottling begins in June, I feel confident knowing that the final product will be a wine that you’ll love and will uphold the reputation of Sunset Hills’ and 50 West’s bold red wines.
April is designated as Virginia Vineyard Month. For those that have visited either of our tasting rooms, you have probably glimpsed a few rows of Viognier or Cabernet Sauvignon as you meandered up the gravel driveway. Those rows are just a small portion of the close to seventy acres we have under vine. Yes, seventy acres spread across five farms in Loudoun County and the Shenandoah Valley! Let’s take a further look at each property - pros and cons and a few fun facts in between.
We have two properties all the way out near Woodstock, Virginia that make up about half of our total production. With no traffic (don’t hold your breath on I-81), it takes a little over an hour to get to this site. Towing a full load of fruit, it can take closer to an hour and a half! The traveling is worth it to these two sites because of the variation in climate, soil types, and elevation as compared to Loudoun County. These sites tend to give us less rainfall and more good airflow coming through the valley between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains, essential to producing good fruit.
Shenandoah Springs is our more established site. Sitting between 1280 and 1330 feet elevation with a mixture of loam and limestone soils, this site offers balanced fruit including Cabernet Franc, Viognier, Tannat, Petit Verdot, Chardonnay, and Sangiovese. You know that Rose of Sangiovese you love in the spring time? That is 100% Shenandoah Springs fruit! The 2017 Viognier is right around 70% Shenandoah fruit and the 2016 Cabernet Franc is upwards of 90% Shenandoah Springs. This site is also home base for meetings, crew lunches, chicken round ups, and tractor maintenance. It is marked by the quaint white and green building right at the lowest and central point to the vineyard entrance.
Sherman Ridge is the other Shenandoah site, located right down the road from Shenandoah Springs. Planted in 2014 and 2015, this site is right off the main road suitably and legally dubbed Back Road. Home to Merlot, Tannat, Petit Manseng, Cabernet Sauvignon, Vidal Blanc, and a mere five rows of Muscat Ottonel, this site is upcoming in quality. It sits slightly lower in elevation than Shenandoah Springs at 1,060 to 1,130 feet and shares similar soil types.
Sunset Hills Vineyard, our sister vineyard, not only hosts the revamped barn and plenty of picnic tables to relax on a sunny day, but it also sits on about sixteen acres of vines. The property is split up into four different vineyards, appropriately dubbed Vineyard 1, Vineyard 2, Vineyard 3, and Vineyard 4 or V1, V2, V3, V4 for short. As you wind your way up the driveway, you are flanked by Vineyard 3 and 4. Vineyard 4 is exclusively Viognier, whereas Vineyard 3 has Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Petit Manseng, and Viognier. V3 fruit is often seen in the Mosaic blend, especially the sloped section that has great sun exposure and drainage. Vineyard 1 is the first vineyard planted and managed by Mike Canney himself, and it was just the beginning of the Sunset and 50 West story that continues today.
50 West Vineyards is the newest tasting room and vineyard site. What used to be a horse barn and private home is now a tasting room and club house dedicated to customers looking for wines that are slightly different than the “classic” Virginia wines. Sauvignon Blanc and Albariño are two varieties that are grown on the backside of the clubhouse and are also enjoyed in the tasting room.
Catesby, our coveted hybrid vineyard, is just a quick ten-minute drive from 50 West. Chambourcin, Vidal Blanc, and Traminette are all located at this site. Although this site is not great for vinifera due to its lack of slope and ability to hold water, it seems to produce hybrids that are fairly consistent (if you can call Virginia winegrowing consistent) and help us produce wines that are fresh, acid-driven, approachable in the tasting room. Chambourcin is a great blending grape for us! We are glad to have it in our stock for variations in such wines like Sunset Rose, Ashby Gap, Dusk, and Dawn. What would we do without it?!
Seventy acres of planted vineyards scattered around Northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley definitely keeps our vineyard crew busy but we wouldn’t have it any other way. All of the hard work and time dedicated to these vineyards result in great fruit that we then turn into the wines that you love in the tasting room!
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!
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!
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 50 West Vineyards!
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.
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, Petit Manseng, 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.
We’re often asked ‘if we grow all of our own grapes, then why are the vines so small at 50 West?’ That’s because 50 West is our youngest of our five sites. The property at 50 West had excellent potential for a vineyard so that’s exactly what we decided to do - plant a vineyard!
Planting Albariño Vines at 50 West Vineyards
Not only did we see the potential of the Middleburg area and being surrounded by other sophisticated wineries but also a great site for growing grapes. Heading off the beaten path, Sauvignon Blanc and Albariño were selected instead of the more well known Chardonnay and Viognier, which we grow just down the road at our Sunset Hills property. Cabernet Sauvignon is also to your right as your drive up to our tasting room.
As you meander up the driveway, you might notice that these vines have little to no fruit on them. But why? In the first two years of the vine’s life, we want them to focus on root growth and vine balance.
In the first year, the vines need enough leaves to support downward root growth. Through photosynthesis, the vines generate enough energy to drive a deeper and more established root system for future upward growth. Simplified: healthy leaves equal healthy roots!
In the second year of growth, like our Sauv Blanc and Albariño, the focus is still vegetal growth. If the cane does not reach the first wire of the trellis system, then we will continue to treat the vine as if it were still in its first year. Why? Because the vine is not strong enough and needs more time to establish itself.
Second Year Cabernet Sauvignon Vine with Springtime Growth
Second Year Cabernet Sauvignon Vine with Late Summer Growth
If the vine is strong, then we will be able to select a trunk and cordon for the next year. On the cordon, we will eventually get shoots which will then give us some fruit in the third year.
Take a look at the diagram to see the breakdown of the vine in its first two years of growth.
Wolf, Tony; Reynolds, Andrew. (2008). Pruning and Training. In Wolf, Tony (Ed.), Wine Grape Production Guide for Eastern North America (p. 111). Blacksburg, VA: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
The wait is worth it, if you ask our team! We’re patiently tending to these vines knowing that all of this hard work will payoff in the bounty of grapes produced in the future.
Welcome to the blog of 50 West Vineyards!
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 50 West 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. In the meantime, follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/50WestVineyards