London Cru’s Alex Hurley is one of Few UK winemakers prioritising still wines over sparkling
A high-risk strategy in a marginal climate - Lisse Garnett asked him how he does it...
Hurley is the resident Australian winemaker at London Cru and has been for the past two and a half years. Though he appears freakishly youthful, Alex’s CV tells another story. A fully qualified geologist, he spent 7 years working in Eastern Australia and Asia, ‘making holes in the ground’ before transitioning to wine. Then, with the backing of his ex lawyer wife (she has now given up law in favour of a more altruistic career) he quit his geology calling to go and live alone in a stinking winery caravan, cleaning tanks and developing his wine making knowledge from the bottom up.
Alex (right) enjoying a glass at 67 Pall Mall
His wine career began at a small winery near Melbourne in the Bellarine Peninsula – Lethbridge Estate Winery. Fortuitously the assistant winemaker at the time was one Alex Byrne, who went on to open Noisy Ritual, Melbourne’s first urban winery. Alex joined the Lethbridge winery team and got obsessively involved in every aspect of the business. The aforementioned onsite caravan proved the ideal spot for a 24/7 nascent nerd to be whilst he learned invaluable wine making skills. Working for Ray and Maree at Lethbridge proved inspirational, it planted a seed in him, a notion of winemaking as an adventure - a project based on passion, drive and serious dedication. That seed has taken root in the urban winery at London Cru we see today.
Noisy Ritual gave rise to a need for formal wine training, Hurley‘s next step. He completed the Vinifera Euro Masters, a Masters in Viticulture and Enology and lived and worked in wineries in Montpellier, Bordeaux and Turin whilst studying. He then worked in numerous wineries across the world, circling in on Europe with Barolo, Beaune and finally Gusbourne in Kent. When Gusbourne’s Charlie Holland took him on, he ignited in him a passion for English wine that has never abated. The reverse commute from Appledore to London where his wife was based lead him to look for a job closer to home. London Cru in west London proved the ultimate option. On his day off from Gusbourne he knocked on the door to ask if they needed a winemaker. It just so happened they did.
Three vintages and numerous awards in, he modestly says he is still finding his feet.
‘Alex is a world class winemaker without a world sized ego. Everyone is welcome at London Cru and Alex is a brilliant teacher, he likes to share his knowledge’ Cliff Roberson
London Cru opened in 2013 when Cliff Roberson of Roberson Wine thought it would be a great idea to build London’s first urban winery. A wine trade face of 50 years standing Cliff was no stranger to the urban wineries of America and saw no reason why we shouldn’t have one here.
Learn more about Cliff
Alex waves the Australian flag with his unmatched cooking prowess at the Roberson BBQ
What is the idea behind London Cru Alex?
It makes wine accessible and is also an incredible event space. There is little difference between an urban winery and a winery in the country side but for the fact the fruit doesn’t come from Fulham. We transport our grapes from the vineyards typically in around an hour and 20 minutes – for the Bacchus, the grapes were so good that in 2020 we decided to make a single vineyard expression of the grape. These grapes come from a very special vineyard, in Upperton – owned by sparkling winemaking pros – we are very fortunate they don’t need their Bacchus for their own wines.
London Cru are more still wine focused - what is the rationale behind this?
Every year we make 80% still and 20% sparkling, the reverse of most English producers. The grower in Upperton for example has about 100 acres of grapes under vine, predominantly Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier. The Classic Champagne blend. They also have just 4 rows of Bacchus and each year we get the lot. They are perfect viticultural managers and over the years working with them I’ve learnt a lot about the best ways to approach making wines from their site.
What about the connection growers have with their fruit, are you at a disadvantage because you buy your fruit rather than grow it?
The advantage of being an urban winery is that we don’t have a vineyard – we can choose the right fruit for the wine that we want to make – we can go to West Sussex, Crouch Valley in Essex, Kent and Canterbury – we don’t have to worry about rain and frost. This flexibility gives us more confidence to make still wine in the UK. Single vineyard wines are more challenging. Sparkling wine production is far less risky in a cool climate because you don’t have to get the ripeness as high as you do for still.
Isn’t it almost impossible to make still wines securely in the UK every year?
We still have to contend with the climate – that’s why I personally prefer to make wines from Bacchus and Pinot Précoce. These grapes are very well suited to our cooler climate and because of this every year we can make fabulous Bacchus and Précoce. The style of Bacchus we make is crisp and dry – I love this variety – the zesty grapefruit, citrus vibe is our calling card rather than the over the top elderflower aromatics you can get with Bacchus. It’s a wonderful food wine, particularly for seafood or any dish you would squeeze lemon or lime on – Pad Thai is a classic example, the zesty lemony grapefruit vibe of the Bacchus can really stand up to the power of the aromatic spices. We are very proud of the great restaurant listings we have all over the UK with our Bacchus….it is certainly one of the most important wines we make each year.
How about Burgundy style Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for UK stills?
In 2018 Chardonnay was wonderful here in the UK but in cooler years it can be too austere – I’ve had some crazy zippy Chardonnays from the Jura that I love and I believe in the UK we could make that style here. On the other hand Pinot Noir from Burgundian clones can be a bit too aggressive in a cold year here. That’s why I generally prefer Pinot Noir Précoce instead of the Burgundian clones.
What is Pinot Noir Précoce?
Pinot Noir Précoce or Frühburgunder – it’s an early ripening Pinot Noir clone. It is the red wine clone I am most excited about in the UK. Whilst it won’t deliver a big full-bodied red, that’s not a style that I look for in the UK, it does deliver wonderful ripe fruit. We ferment this grape in concrete tanks, fully destemmed, un-crushed berries, in a semi-carbonic fermentation with low levels of extraction. Light and elegant is the goal. I’m very inspired by producers in Tasmania that have been doing this style with Pinot Noir over the last 20 years. This wine is best consumed when quite youthful, maximising the cherry and plum character. In the cooler vintages this wine has a cranberry and rhubarb finish – which I love to serve slightly chilled.
Your Bacchus is super silky, full and deep, how do you do that?
We use a lot of classic techniques – Bordeaux taught me great methods of approaching white grapes with high acidity. We ferment in temperature controlled stainless steel, then leave it with the lees for as long as possible, I taste it constantly. You need to go as far as you can, that yeast, that lees contact is contributing texture, flavour, complexity – it softens the acidy and it’s really important. Semillon is typically in the oak barrels in Bordeaux, but as I don’t have Semillion we use the hard pressing and skin contact portions of Bacchus to age in the oak. This softens the intensity, rounds the mouthfeel, provides great yeast contact, however you sacrifice some of the fresh fruity aromatics. The texture you get and the flavours that come in from the oak and the increased surface are for yeast contract are really valuable – its thoughtfully done.
So the yeast you use is a seriously important component?
I don’t just chuck it in a tank. I do use yeast and my Master’s thesis was on yeast selection, I am a bit of a yeast nerd so I am not in any way a hands-off winemaker. I am totally hands off with chemicals and other products but I think yeast selection is a very good tool, particularly when you are trying to make an aromatic crisp wine like this. It gives a style that is interesting and distinctive. It’s not a lazy option. I will have four, five different yeasts, each for a different blending component for a single wine. One yeast will produce elevated thiols like you might find in a Sauvignon Blanc, one yeast will be producing terpenes which are found in a Riesling. Then before bottling I’ll piece them back together to produce a final blend. These wines will commonly be single vineyard expressions of a grape, but I focus very carefully on how to get the best expression from each site. Yeasts are a important tool for me to achieve this.
Can Bacchus age?
Bacchus can definitely age. After two years the 2019 is better now than it ever was, it develops a mintyness and changes its aromatic profile. The style becomes less about primal tropical fruits and starts to develop savoury notes. We have just a few bottles remaining from the 2014 vintage which are still astoundingly good – like a Riesling – with TDN aromas and a minty vibe, Bacchus is not just about passion fruit and elderflower. After two years in bottle you can taste the development. The ageing potential is in my opinion very under rated.
What are the advantages of using Bacchus and Pinot Noir Précoce?
Simply put – these are both early ripening varieties which are well suited to the UK climate. They are able to hit great maturity each year with the amount of sun we have in the UK. We normally harvest in September, about a month earlier than those using Burgundian clones. This delay in harvest brings you into late October or even into November, a crucial period where the climate becomes more difficult and there is an increased risk of the damage to your grapes. On warmer years we will chase down some Burgundian UK grapes but for the core wines in our range, these early ripening varieties are perfect for our still wines. It’s hard to make world class still every year from Burgundian Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Tell us about the winemaking
My ethos in the cellar is quite low interventions, with the exception of yeast selection.
I have a range of temperature controlled stainless tanks, concrete tanks and barrels. The oak we use is quite neutral, 4th or 5th use. I like to use these for the micro-oxygenation, for the softening of the wine rather than adding oaky flavours. We are trying to makes wines that speak of our cool slimate, have fabulous ripe characters, and essentially are world class in their category. meet ripe fruit driven easy drinking and fresh, wines
England has a niche – it’s a cool climate – like Tasmania, the acidity is our hero and helps to set the style. Some of the regions abroad are too warm for Pinot, it needs acidity but we are at the other extreme. There will be years when we can produce stella Pinot Noir from Burgundian clones but only in the warmest spots and in the best years. Some of the best in the world in my opinion, just look at the highly acclaimed Gusbourne 2018 Barrel Selection. Blackbook are also producing some fabulous Pinot Noirs. There are also a lot of duds, it’s in my opinion the hardest wine to make in the UK for sure.
Sparkling wine is perfect for the UK, its perfect for the climate and it makes sense in terms of owning a static vineyard, the risks are far lower as you don’t need the same level of ripeness as you do for still. Whilst we make sparkling, it is not the main focus of our production.
Hang on, didn’t you just win a Gold for your sparkling at the Wine GB Awards?
We might have hahahahahaha..Seriously, to be shortlisted in such a competitive category is a huge honour, as a small player we are delighted to be among so many top class producers.
Why the focus on still?
There are a lot of exciting still wines in the UK now, but right now the wine industry here is still exploring and working out what is possible, pushing the boundaries, seeing what works. This adventure, experimentation really appeals to me. Making still wines is a space which allows creativity and a certain level of freedom – sparkling wine in my opinion is much more precise.
We have built really good relationships with the growers we work with for our still wines and we have signed long term contracts for Bacchus, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Précoce. What I do on the side of these is more opportunistic – we get to try new things and the Roberson Wine management is right behind us. We make fun cloudy Pet Nats and they sell really well.
As an Urban winery we have to have these playful wines. We are an entry point, an introduction for a lot of people to the wine making world. We are open here, anyone can come in – our prices are reasonable, you don’t have to drive anywhere, you don’t have to pay fifty quid a bottle. We are a launching pad for a lot of people getting into wine. We are an accessible place in central London where people can taste and even make English wines. That’s what we are all about at London Cru.