In conversation with Alex Hurley

How did you personally get started in wine?

My path to wine was about as indirect as you can get. I lived all over Australia and South East Asia while working as an exploration geologist, however, there was a tipping point in around 2010 where my passion for wine took over. 

Increasingly my wife and I spent our holidays and free time exploring wine regions, talking about wine and dreaming of making wine. I worked sporadically in a winery in the Bellarine Peninsula and was fortunate to find a great mentor in Australia before going to university in France and Italy to complete a MSc Oenology and Viticulture. For the last few years I gained experience working through Barolo and Burgundy and when I arrived in the UK late last year, I was lucky enough to work with the great team at Gusbourne in Kent.

What drew you to London Cru? 

London Cru is a perfect fit for what excites me about the UK wine industry. While I love making wine, what really motivates me is sharing wine and providing a connection and experience with people. When in pure wine production roles, I felt removed from this connection. At London Cru we are small, 10,000 bottles per year; I’ll be involved with a little of everything from training courses, tastings, working with growers, making the wine; and this diversity seriously excites me. It also helps that the London wine scene is mind-blowing! Since I’ve been here, I’ve met with more amazing winemakers and tasted an incredible variety of wines from the UK and the world than at any other time in my life.    

What’s it like working in an urban winery? 

There really is no major difference between winemaking in an urban winery and a winery in the countryside. We only differ in being supremely accessible; sommeliers and restaurants can drop in on their lunch break and Londoners can easily come in, taste our wines and share in the experience.

How does London Cru go about finding suitable growers to work with? 

A large part of my time is spent meeting growers, exploring the quality of UK vineyards and searching for the cool climate varieties which excite me the most. London Cru will focus on producing high quality still wines and I feel this is the area of the greatest opportunity for improvement and innovation. Our focus in the cellar is to make high-quality wine year in and year out and as I don’t want to fight the climate of the UK with adjustments, early ripening varieties just make sense. Varieties like Bacchus will be at the core of this and, depending on the vintage, I’m also very excited to play with other consistent grapes. Just last week I tried a fabulous Rondo rosé, a ripping Ortega, and a very elegant Précoce.

How do you ensure a consistent supply of fruit?

We use a mixture of tools to ensure a consistent supply of fruit. This is something I’m very focused on now. We aren’t looking to have a transactional relationship with growers, but rather a sustainable collaboration so that we can make the best wines possible. I want to work with growers, with my boots in the vineyard, walking the vines, know what sprays and applications are being used, taste the fruit and work closely to set pick dates. 

We have a range of core wines which we will make each year, for these wines I work with growers to establish targeted quality indicators. Over the years London Cru has sourced from vineyards who have maintained great quality year in and year out and with these vineyards, we want to establish longer-term agreements. For new growers we will set targets, take into consideration the vintage conditions and ultimately see if the collaboration was positive. The end goal is to make great wine and at the forefront of this quest is the grape quality.

Is it challenging not having your own vineyards? 

It can be, but since 2017 we committed to sourcing grapes exclusively from vineyards in the UK. They are all quite close to our cellar, so transporting fruit is relatively easy and we can work closely with our growers.

Where do you think the UK grape market is heading? 

This is a tough question. From what I’ve read, the area under vine will grow 24% in 2019. I’ve seen real excitement in London about the quality of UK wines, but how this converts to absorbing this kind of growth is hard to predict. Personally, I genuinely feel we are still discovering the potential for UK regions and wines. 

What is your winemaking style?

My winemaking style is quite simple. I aim to bring the expression of the variety to the front. I don’t feel new oak has a place in the UK still wines, I prefer white wines with a backbone of crisp acidity, minerality, flinty, with a body indicative of the climate and the vintage. I want to make exciting wines with a punch, concentration is important to me, nothing flabby, fat, or soft. In the past, I’ve worked very minimal intervention, but I’m not dogmatic in any sense, my end goal is to make the best wine possible from the grapes. For example, I will use sulphur dioxide judicially at the right times to protect the wines from oxidation and microbiological spoilage.

Do you have a market in mind when you are crafting your products?

I think this is very important. It is easy to make wine but selling, that’s where the work really starts. Our core wines are targeted and have a purpose. We know where they sit in restaurants and what food they will pair with. On the side of this, London Cru has other adventurous, experimental wines with more talking points and charisma.

How do you get your wines to market?

I am very lucky as London Cru is owned by Roberson Wine – a well-established London wine merchant, with great connections to amazing bars and restaurants. Roberson represents wineries from all over the world, selling direct to consumer, on-trade and off-trade, but London Cru is our own baby, so there is a huge point of difference and it’s a way to highlight the company’s genuine wine passion, entrepreneurial spirit, and perhaps eccentricity. 

What’s in store for London Cru this year?

We will add some more wines to the range this vintage. Esoteric wines which complement our core range and highlight the diversity of great English fruit and different methods of vinification. We will bring in grapes from a few different regions and hope to vinify them separately to highlight their sense of place and regional differences.

What do you think is the biggest issue facing the UK wine industry?

We need to build the brand of UK wines by bringing consumers in as a collective industry. With the huge number of vines being planted, wine production is going to explode. The industry needs to pull together and push to be recognised, not just for sparkling, but the real diversity of quality wines being produced here. There are so many great wine bars in London that still don’t stock a single English wine which is completely crazy.

How can winemakers ensure they are staying ahead of trends to better connect with consumers? 

Trends in wine style are always difficult to chase. However, we do know that wine experiences are very important for the modern consumer. As an urban winery, Londoners can join in the real experience of making wine through initiatives like our ‘Crush Club’. Many wineries told me this scheme was madness and that people wouldn’t pay to ‘work in a cellar’, but we designed a fun, interactive experience which does include some graft, but has an authenticity consumers are craving. There are 100’s of places in London offering wine tastings, but we are the only venue offering this kind of experience.

Do producers need to offer more than just wine to be sustainable? 

Our winery is a great events space, an accredited WSET training centre, but also a highly rated tourism location. This diversification helps us keep the lights on, but also just makes sense for an urban winery in London. The exposure from events, like hosting the UK première of Somm3, links new consumers to our brand, they get to experience the facility and taste the quality of our wines. In the future, we would love the space to be used by other wineries from around the UK wanting to showcase their wines in London. Our ‘Bacchus in Focus’ event was designed for this exact purpose; to bring the message of quality Bacchus to London.

Do you think it is going to become more challenging for producers to stand out in a crowded market?

Not at all. At this point in the industry, I don’t see the other UK producers as direct competitors. In reality, we are still a tiny industry, many consumers still haven’t ever tried a UK wine. For me, the challenge for the future is to bring the message of UK wines into the mainstream.

Finish this sentence: In ten years’ time…. 

My wife and I will still be following our passion for adventure.

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