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


2021 Leo Steen Rose Ranch Rose of Grenache

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)
2021 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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¥4,950 (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)
2019 Leo Steen Jurassic Park Vineyard Chenin Blanc
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)
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