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


2020 Leo Steen Mendocino County Chenin Blanc

This wine was produced from old Chenin Blanc vines planted in the mid-1970s in the south-eastern hills near Ukiah. Leo Hansen describes the wine as having “alluring weight and richness, a silky texture, and subtle aromas of Bosc pear, white pepper, Chamomile, and lemon peel. The palate offers a medley of beeswax, lemon salt, and almond notes, that carry through to a lingering, refreshing finish.”

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¥4,730 (incl. tax)
2014 Leo Steen Upper Scala Vineyard Syrah

Leo Steen’s Upper Scala Syrah resembles a red from the Northern Rhone is two ways: it’s 100% Syrah, and it offers an attractive mix of sweet and savory: violets, cherry liquor, smoked meat and black olives. It’s also built for aging with fresh acidity, firm structure and rich body. The fruit is sourced from the Scala Vineyard, which sits at an elevation of 350 m on Sonoma Mountain. Facing northeast, the plot is cool and well-drained with rocky and volcanic soils. Yields are usually low, but the grape clusters are small and packed with flavors. Now that the wine is entering maturity, complex tertiary flavors are beginning to develop. At under 14% alcohol, it’s an excellent choice to accompany a fine meal. 

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¥5,500 (incl. tax)
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2018 Leo Steen Jurassic Park Vineyard Chenin Blanc

Named for the dinosaur fossils discovered nearby, this vineyard 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 root louses. Though somewhat risky, own-rooted vines are heartier and require less irrigation. 2018 was an exceptional vintage, with a wet spring followed by a mild summer that allowed the grapes to mature slowly without heat stress. Proclaiming Jurassic Park Chenin Blanc “one of the best versions of this grape made in California,” Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle said it “exemplifies the wonderful tension that Chenin Blanc can achieve: fruitiness and bitterness, richness and sharpness, all at once.” This is a wine that seduces with it lovely texture, fresh minerality, and exotic fruit.

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¥5,720 (incl. tax)
2018 Leo Steen Ascona Vineyard Cabernet Franc

Leo Steen had long aspired to make Cabernet Franc in the peppery, fresh style of the Loire Valley, but finding fruit from a vineyard with all the right conditions proved to be a challenge. So when he was offered Cabernet Franc from the Ascona Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he jumped at the chance. At an elevation of 820 m, the site gets abundant sunshine but stays relatively cool; moreover, the sandstone and shale soils are well-drained, providing ideal conditions for Cabernet Franc with complex flavors but no excess sweetness. In 2018, grapes could be harvested in October (i.e. late in the season) but with sugars of only 23 Brix, making for a wine that is a modest 13.7% alcohol. In the winery, fermenting on native yeast and with 20% whole clusters added toward fulfilling the vision of a vibrant, savory, old-world-inspired wine. As Leo Steen puts it, “this expressive wine displays a gorgeous nose of black cherry and bitter dark chocolate, as well as layers of pepper and violet. On the palate, age-worthy tannins underscore a savory mix of dark fruit, pine sap, and Kirsch.”

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¥7,150 (incl. tax)