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





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Wines from this Winery

2019 Leo Steen Saini Farms Chenin Blanc

The Saini family has been growing grapes in the Dry Creek and Alexander valleys for over 100 years. Their block of Chenin Blanc planted in 1982 is a rarity, given that so little of that Loire variety is left in California vineyards. (In the 1970s, it was far, far more widespread than Chardonnay!) These 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. Leo Steen’s winemaking emphasizes the natural flavors of the fruit, too, aging the wine for just a few months in neutral French oak and allowing only a part to undergo malolactic fermentation. He describes it as a wine with “alluring weight and richness, a silky texture and subtle aromas of green pear, white pepper, Chamomile, and mint.” 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.

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¥3,410 (incl. tax)
2020 Leo Steen Dry Creek Valley Rose of Grenache

A key attribute of Grenache is its versatility. The main player in the plush and spicy reds of Southern France and Spain, Grenache also produces excellent rosé, typically in a style that’s aromatic, light in color, dry, and refreshing. Leo Steen’s Grenache is from the organically- farmed Provisor Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley’s Lytton District, which has a Mediterranean climate that Grenache loves. Because the rocky vineyard yields only a meagre two tons per acre, Steen typically makes Grenache as a full-bodied red wine, but with wildfires on the horizon, he decided to pick the fruit early and send it straight to press. Fermented on native yeast and made with low sulphur, the wine is bright and full of energy with aromas and flavors of bright strawberry, orange blossom, grapefruit, and crushed rock.

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¥4,290 (incl. tax)
2014 Leo Steen Upper Scala Vineyard Syrah

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¥5,500 (incl. tax)
2016 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. This is a wine that seduces with it lovely texture, fresh minerality and exotic fruit. Winemaking included fermentation on natural yeast in concrete eggs, four months in neutral French oak as well as an extended period in bottle before release. In contrast to the bright and youthful Saini Chenin, this wine features a melange of savory notes - toast and almonds - over the juicy core of lemon and peach. 

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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)