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.”

Wine Maker

Leo Hansen

Country

USA

Region

California


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Wines from this Winery


LEO STEEN Chenin Blanc Saini Farms

While Chenin Blanc is making a comeback in the California wine industry, it has yet to regain the mass production it saw back in the 1970s, when it was consumed either as a semi-sweet varietal or as a component in popular jug wines. The Saini Vineyard in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley demonstrates that, under the right conditions, Chenin Blanc can be bone-dry, sleek and elegant. 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 emphasizes the natural flavors of the fruit, too, with a mere five months in neutral French oak. 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 you are looking for something new for an evening’s aperitif or light meal, try this Chenin Blanc from Leo Steen.

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¥4,950 (incl. tax)
LEO STEEN Chenin Blanc Jurassic Park Vineyard

Named for the dinosaur fossils discovered nearby, this vineyard, 400 m up in the hills above the Santa Ynez Valley, features well-drained, limestone and sandy soils that stress the Chenin Blanc vines just enough to produce small grape clusters with concentrated flavors. These soils as well as the arid climate allowed the vines to be planted on their own roots rather than grafted, which is standard practice as protection from the root louse. Though somewhat risky, own-rooted vines are heartier and require less irrigation. This is a wine that seduces with texture, wet stone minerality, and alluring notes of honeysuckle, white peach, orange blossom, and fresh hay. It’s an appealing dry wine with good weight and understated acidity.

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¥6,160 (incl. tax)
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LEO STEEN Rose of Grenache Rose Ranch

A key component in the plush and spicy reds of Southern France and Spain, Grenache can also produce aromatically pleasing, dry and refreshing rosé wines. Located at the base of the extinct volcano called Sugarloaf in the Kenwood area of the Sonoma Valley AVA, the Rose Ranch is a certified biodynamic vineyard owned by chef Steve Rose. The block of old vine Grenache is planted in well-drained lava and gravel soils. Handpicked grapes are pressed directly to stainless steel tanks, fermented on native yeasts, and then aged in neutral barrels for four months. Perfect for sipping at the end of a spring or summer day, this rosé is bright and full of energy with aromas and flavors of bright strawberry, orange blossom, grapefruit, and crushed rock.

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¥4,950 (incl. tax)