Leo Steen

Reviving California Chenin Blanc

Located in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, Leo Steen Wines is a 1,000 case winery owned by Leo Steen Hansen, a Danish-born winemaker who is passionate about single vineyard, dry Chenin Blanc – though he does produce a few barrels of Syrah, Grenache and Chardonnay as well.    Founded in 2004, Leo Steen Wines is a point on Leo Hansen’s journey in food and wine that began in the kitchen of his father’s restaurant in Denmark, led him to explore the wine regions of Europe, and saw him become a sommelier, wine director and, finally, a maker of California wine. From the start, Hansen has eschewed making the expected Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or Cab. Instead, he has been a key player in the nascent comeback of California Chenin Blanc, the elegant and versatile grape of the Loire Valley that once was more popular than Chardonnay in Napa and Sonoma but is now grown on less than 50 acres across the two counties.   Steen is the term used in South Africa for wines made of Chenin Blanc. It also happens to be Leo Hansen’s middle name. While charmed by the coincidence, his interest in the grape began while working as a sommelier in Healdsburg. He wished he could offer a food-friendly California wine that wouldn’t cost much but offered structure, elegance and acidity. As luck would have it, right around the time he began making his own wines, he was offered fruit from one of Sonoma County’s last Chenin Blanc vineyards, whose owners were ready to rip out the last remaining acres and plant Chardonnay. While not an overnight success, Hansen has continued to pursue making dry Chenin Blanc from forgotten or overlooked vineyards. In recent years, he’s been joined by a number of like-minded, often younger vintners, and sourcing fruit from good vineyards is getting harder.   Leo Steen Wines continues to make food-friendly wines that are fresh, elegant and affordable. Chenin Blanc is key to the mission, with three vineyard-designated wines: Saini in Dry Creek, Jurassic in Santa Barbara and Peabody in Mendocino. All three vineyards were planted in the early eighties and are dry-farmed, so yields are low. As for winemaking, Leo Hansen works with natural yeasts and limits oak aging and alcohol levels. Syrah, Grenache and Chardonnay round out the portfolio. About vineyards, Leo Hansen has said, “What thrills and inspires me as a winemaker are vineyards that are rich in character, sites that translate into expressive and enthralling wines that give pleasure, but also make you think. Ultimately, making wines that let the vineyards speak is not enough—a vineyard needs to have something worthwhile to say.”

Wines from this Winery

2015 Leo Steen Saini Farms Chenin Blanc

2015 Leo Steen Saini Farms Chenin Blanc

The Saini Vineyard in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley demonstrates that Chenin Blanc is capable of magic when grown under the right conditions. Planted in 1982, the vines are dry-farmed in sandy soil, so yields are low and the fruit expresses pure flavors and freshness that gets lost in warmer sites. Winemaking emphasized the natural flavors of the fruit, too, with a mere four months in neutral French oak and only 50% going through malolactic fermentation. The result is a rich, silky wine with flavors of citrus, orchard fruit and wild herbs and a lovely mouthfeel with a hint of viscosity. If your image of Chenin Blanc is a wine that’s semi-sweet, you’ll be in for a surprise: this Saini Chenin is bone dry and elegant. 

Details
¥ 3,600
2014 Leo Steen Jurassic Park Vineyard Chenin Blanc

2014 Leo Steen Jurassic Park Vineyard Chenin Blanc

While dinosaurs did once roam this part of the Santa Ynez Valley, it’s the limestone and sandy soils  of the Jurrasic Park Vineyard rather than Stegosaurus fossils that nourish the Chenin Blanc vines that produce this excellent wine. Not only the soil, but also the arid climate of the region allowed the vines to have been planted on their own roots rather than grafted, which is the norm throughout the US and Europe as protection from root louses. Though somewhat risky, own-rooted vines are heartier and require less irrigation. Grape clusters are small and the wine is beautifully textured with abundant minerality and exotic fruit. Winemaking included aging of 11 months in concrete eggs, five months in neutral French oak and nine more months in bottle before release. Currently, green apple, lemon citrus, herbal notes and palpable wet stone minerality stand out, but those who can wait will be well-rewarded as the wine matures and the flavors deepen.

Details
¥ 5,200