Urban Explorer Series: Interview with Alex Hurley
“What I enjoy most about my work is being able to connect with people who genuinely enjoy wine. I love having people around for dinner and cooking nice meals and so being able to share something I have created and have put my heart and soul into is really special.”
Winemaker of London Cru
Our Urban Explorer
Could you please introduce yourself to our guests?
I am Alex Hurley and I am the resident winemaker at London’s first urban winery London Cru. I have been working in London for years now in the English wine industry producing not just sparkling wine but still wine as well. I have been running this winery now and this is the third vintage it has been great fun!
When did your love for winemaking start?
My passion for winemaking really stemmed from my family, in which my parents and grandparents loved wine, so I have always been surrounded by it.
How did you know you wanted this passion to become a lifelong career?
I actually studied to become a geologist and travelled around Southeast Asia, having lived in both the Philippines and Vietnam. During the holidays, I would go visit various wineries across different wine regions to see friends who were in the industry and ended up working in a winery as a volunteer in the Bellarine Peninsula of Australia. From then on, I knew I did not want to do anything else, so I went back to university to get my master’s degree in viticulture and oenology. I was very fortunate I had the opportunity to study in some of the world’s most renowned wine regions, like the South of France and Italy. After that, I worked in a few wineries in Italy and France. During that time, I studied with two friends – one was from Somerset and the other was from Kent. Throughout the years that I have known them, they were always sneaking in English wine into dinner parties and celebrations which really intrigued me. Hence, I took a chance and moved here to work with a winery in Kent, and the rest is history!
As the resident Australian winemaker at London Cru, how does your day look like?
It really changes depending on the time of year! So, this time of year is the harvest period, which is our busiest period. From September to October in the UK, the fruits are coming in so we will be working crazy hours. During this period, I will be sleep deprived as I will be next to the press, just making wine because we must process the fruit as it arrives. Once the grapes are in the tank as a liquid or as a wine, the job becomes more regular, and I can go back to the typical nine-to-five. I can come in in the morning, manage my wines in the tank, taste them and make sure they are carefully managed. In March, we start to talk about boiling wines for the market. We also do the labelling of packages, putting them into boxes and taping them up. Thereafter, it is finally time to present the wines to our customers in which we host numerous events so people can visit the winery.
How do you think you fit into the term “Urban Explorer”?
To me, urban exploration can be applied in both work and travel. My life has almost exclusively been focused on wine and so I seek out the most exciting things to do in London that involves this aspect. I am constantly looking at the people around me, the restaurants around me, visiting them and seeing what other people are doing in the industry. To be in the wine business in the UK, you need to be a little bit mad, you need to be creative, you need to be searching for something exciting. From a personal craft point of view, everyone who is in the wine industry here is exploring the possibility of what’s possible her. So, every year, you have to really push yourself to find the best way to product wine or to maybe try something new. On the other side of the spectrum, when I think of the term “urban explorer”, I also think of the opportunities that London has to offer. It’s not so much the museums and the theatre, which I still love; Rather, it is normally about which new restaurants are opening in the city and who has the best wine lists.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
What I enjoy most about my work is being able to connect with people who genuinely enjoy wine. I love having people around for dinner and cooking nice meals and so being able to share something I have created and have put my heart and soul into is really special. I get to talk to people like yourself, I get to present the wine and I get to see people’s reaction whether it is positive or negative. Everyone has their own palette and opinion, but it is very gratifying to actually link the wine to people who are enjoying it or consuming it, rather than just being in the distance.
Glass Half Full
Could you tell us more about London Cru and the urban winery concept behind it?
So historically, wineries have always been in village centres or town centres. In recent years, the wineries have moved into the vineyard, so out of the villages. But there’s still traditional regions like in Austria or in Burgundy, where you will still see the old wineries in the centre of town, but they are less convenient now because there are traffic and people do not like the noise. Hence, wineries have moved out of the village. However, until about 10 to 15 years ago, in Napa Valley, many wineries were brought back into the hearts of towns like Berkeley. Having seen this trend, my boss Cliff Roberson decided to open the first urban winery in London.
Can you explain to us a bit about the overall process of winemaking?
The UK produces really incredible English sparkling wine as the climate is really good for that. That in mind, we also make very good still wines, white wines, and in a warm year, great red wines as well.
From your exquisite wines, we know you only source the highest quality grapes – where do you pick the fruits for your wines?
All our fruits are locally sourced from English vineyards, usually within about an hour of the winery. When our winery first opened, we actually brought fruit in from Spain, Italy, and France in refrigerated vehicles. However, for the last five years, we have been only bringing fruit in from English vineyards, which shows a sign of growth in the industry here.
We know that you are a big supporter of your local community and the environment. Could you tell us more about the forest that you have planted in Kent to increase biodiversity?
The forest in Kent was planted by the owner of the winery, Mr. Cliff Roberson, in commemoration of his son who passed away several years ago. It has now probably been three to four years since the forest has been replanted. This public space is open for anyone to visit and just reflect and relax, and it is about an hour out of London. It is very meaningful to our company as well as a conscious decision to have a positive impact on the environment.
Are you more of a red or white wine person? Any specific type you prefer (Eg. Pinot Noir)?
My favourite wine is definitely Pinot Noir. My palate has always been drawn to slightly more acidic flavour profiles, as opposed to sweet ones. For example, I like granny smith apples which are more acidic and sour. Hence, I supposed I prefer the taste of UK wines because what we have here is a cooler climate that produces more highly acidic and less sugary wines – less ripe in character and more of a crisper style. Hence, sparkling wines and white wines are really more of my style. I know it is not particularly fashionable, but I also love Sauvignon Blanc and I love German Rieslings.
Any particular foods that you enjoy pairing with certain wines?
One of the English sparkling wines we make is called Bacchus. It is very crisp, dry and aromatic and it works really well with oysters, scallops, fish and chips. It sorts of works with anything you can imagine. The acidity is sort of like squeezing lemon on fish. Hence, when you pair lemon and seafood, you know that pairs well together.
Any words of advice for aspiring winemakers?
To succeed in this industry, you really need to passionate about wine and all facets of winemaking. If you don’t have passion, then some of the jobs will absolutely drive you nuts. It is that simple. You have to enjoy the process and sometimes the jobs throughout the process can be exciting, like harvesting, pressing and stomping grapes and fermentation. But then there is also cleaning the picking bins after you have received the fruit, which is not so sexy. If it is just a job and it is a nine to five and you want to clock off at 5pm, it is not for you. You won’t be making great wine. You have to really want to do it and enjoy the entire process.
What does travel mean to you?
Travel is hugely important to me. Since I’ve been 18 years old, I have been travelling with my wife or by myself. In my early 20s, I travelled a lot to Southeast Asia and spent a couple of years working in Vietnam and the Philippines. I appreciate the culture shock and the fun and the differences in food and activities you can do. It was great fun. My wife and I really like challenging ourselves in travel and going to places that we are unfamiliar with. Usually, for us, food and cultural differences are more important to us than seeing the sights. You can probably guess that the winemaker’s journey is all about sensory – experiences that are very important to me and my wife. We love good food, good wine, and good company.
Any cool destinations on your bucket list?
There are so many! I would love to do a fair bit of travel in the South of Italy. I have not been to Geneva or Norway. I haven’t travelled much in the Nordic regions so that would be exciting – that’s on my hit list in the near term. I also want to explore more of the rural regions of France where I can get out of the big towns and go around to the rural areas. Even though I lived in France, it still barely feels like I have scratched the surface.
What are some things you love most about London?
For one thing, it is a launching pad for access to Europe. One of the nicest things in London is that every suburb has its own village and its own vibe. So, it’s a big city but it doesn’t feel like a big city. It still feels local, like the butcher knows you, the chemist knows you. The other thing is that London is amazing for its food and wine. It’s incredible. There are just so many options, it is absolutely ridiculous. Hence, it is hard to keep up with how many restaurants are opening. London also has everything! If you have a passion or it’s something that excites you, there is definitely a world-class equivalent of that in London. So, if you love theatre, there’s amazing theatre. If you love ballet, there’s ballet. If you love music, live music is amazing.