Just over a year ago, I visited London Cru following their pledge to produce only English-grown wines and the recent joining of ambitious winemaker Alex Hurley. It was clear that Alex had big plans after being involved in a promising first vintage in 2018. Now taking full control of the winery, and releasing his first 2019 vintage wines, it feels like all of the pieces of the London Cru jigsaw are starting to fall into place.
I caught up with Alex again last month, this time via a Zoom call, rather than in person, to talk through his three new releases: Baker St. Bacchus 2019, Pimlico Road Pinot Noir Précoce 2019 and the rather unique Petticoat Lane Pinot Gris Pet-Nat 2019. I felt that these wines were quite a step up from the 2018 vintage, with particularly appealing textural qualities. I took the opportunity to ask Alex a few questions about the new wines, and also what the near future may hold for London Cru.
Just over one year on from our first meeting at London Cru, what has it been like working with fruit from the more challenging 2019 vintage in England?
Alex: Well, it was certainly a tougher year than 2018. I learned that making super detailed plans before the arrival of fruit was a waste of time. In my mind I had tonnages and tanks sorted out, but mother nature has fixed all that. I had plans to make a rosé, plans to make different reds, but as the fruit arrived in the cellar they decided the wine style.
For instance, in 2019 I made 2000 bottles of traditional method 100% Pinot Meunier – these grapes from Canterbury were absolutely amazing. However, their sugar levels and acidity were not suitable for still wine, but instead a perfect fit for sparkling. So rather than push the grapes in a new direction, this is what I made. The cooler vintage of 2019 really highlighted the importance of early ripening varieties for still wine. The best example, my Pinot Noir Précoce, was harvested in mid-September, well before the cooler and wet weather. These grapes had 12.5% alcohol potential early on, and when compared to the Burgundian clones were more than a month ahead. Importantly in a cooler, wet year the early ripening varieties helped so much to ensure good fruit quality.
One of your new releases is a Pinot Gris Pet-Nat! That’s not exactly something you come across very often, particularly in England. Can you tell us a little about how this wine came to be?
Alex: I’ve been working with a new vineyard located in West Sussex, mainly for the Chardonnay and Précoce, but it also happened to have a small patch of Pinot Gris. I loved working with this grape in Australia, but the potential wine style in the UK is obviously very different. The acidity was roaring at harvest, not suitable for still wine, whilst the phenolics spoke clearly of Pinot Gris with the pear/apple character. So, why not make a sparkling Pinot Gris Pet-Nat, all fun, nothing too serious, something I personally wanted to make and drink. A winemaker I studied with, a mega hipster Austrian, loves this style of wine and through his enthusiasm, I’m now fully on board the hipster juice wagon. Pet-Nat can actually be quite serious, and it is really fun to cellar – I’ve tried many that are seven plus years on yeast in the bottle that truly are amazing. Rustic sparkling wine – what’s not to love!
With your new 2019 vintage Bacchus and Pinot Noir Précoce, it really feels like these wines have an extra dimension of texture and structure. What have you done differently this year to bring out these qualities?
Alex: Each of the wines had quite a high level of thought put into them, specifically to build this character. The Précoce for example, even though it was just 750kg, was fermented in four open-top fermenters. One of these barrels was a wild fermentation, the others had two different selected Burgundian yeasts. The idea here was a layering of complexity, small components, which, when pieced back together in the barrel to age, add a certain level of depth. The wine was pressed early and transferred to barrel under gravity. I was so delicate with the production of this wine as I really wanted to retain the ripe red fruit character which was so good in these grapes and really hard to find in the UK.
The same concept was applied to the Bacchus – I fermented this wine in four different components, each with a certain focus: one to bring out the Sauvignon Blanc thiol style, another with skin contact, another with a focus on yeast which promoted the production of terpenes (which I gathered due to the parentage of Bacchus). 23% was then aged in oak, the tanks remaining on their lees until just before bottling. A high level of experimentation in the 2019 helped me to understand Bacchus so that going forward I can focus on honing the style I love.
You have a few more 2019 vintage wines up your sleeves due in the next six months or so. What can you tell us about these wines?
Alex: A small amount of Pinot Meunier traditional method sparkling will soon be disgorged. I’m still getting my head around when I’ll do this as it will all be hand riddled, disgorged, and dosed by yours truly. I just have the little headache of the 2020 vintage arriving next month – so we will see. The main release of this wine will be in Spring 2021. I will be doing this in batches of 240 due to my riddling rack capacity, so it will be fun to see how things evolve with different times on the lees.
The next wine is a fun one: it is a red made from a grape called Cabernet Noir. What took my fancy with this grape is its similarities to Cabernet Franc with its red fruits, light body, nice acidity, but a really spicy green bell pepper/ capsicum, white pepper character that entices me. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but it is certainly my guilty pleasure. This wine is still in barrel and will be bottled in the early weeks of September. The best thing about this grape, however, is the viticultural benefits – it is a resistant variety, which means the chemical inputs in the vineyard are very very low. Again this is an interesting grape that is very well suited to the UK climate.
A final sneaky wine, just a few hundred bottles, is an extended lees-aged Bacchus. I’m not sure if this will hit the market as it is an experiment to see how the wine character develops. So far this is looking amazing!
Last year we briefly touched upon untapped potential in English wine. One year on, are there any grapes out there that you haven’t worked with yet but you really want to?
Alex: Oh, so many. That is the fun of the UK right now. I love exploring varieties that are new to me, finding examples from other producers that excite me. I loved what Flint and 16 Ridges was doing with Précoce and can thank them for showing me the quality of this grape. I’ve been exploring lots of producers, from the UK and Germany, and learned that, unlike many others, I personally don’t gravitate towards Ortega; there is something about the ripe peach/apricot character that doesn’t sit with me. Madeleine Angevine on the other hand is really interesting.
I’ll also be making something I really love – cool climate Chardonnay! In 2020 I’ll be harvesting around 90% of my Chardonnay for Blanc de Blancs, but I’m also planning on leaving the best bunches in the vineyard for a second pick. This second pick will be for still Chardonnay, neutral oak, crisp and linear. A slight reduction would be welcome – it’s a style I personally love.
A big thanks to Alex for his insights into the new London Cru wines. You can find my tasting notes on the three new releases below. I was really impressed with all three wines and look forward to the forthcoming releases (particularly that Pinot Meunier sparkling) in due course.
Petticoat Lane Pinot Gris Pet-Nat 2019
Grapes: Pinot Gris
A truly fun (and very excitable) expression of Pinot Gris! Made in the ancestral method, with the secondary fermentation happening in bottle and yeast left undisgorged, this charismatic wine has a cloudy, golden appearance.
It begins with a potent nose of orange peel, bruised apple, lemon peel and biscuity notes that appear from the residual Champagne yeasts.
To taste, it’s intensely zingy, crisp and dry. There are tongue-tingling citrus and green orchard fruit flavours, with a pleasing suggestion of stone fruit on the mid-taste. It’s super refreshing on a warm day, and Alex suggests it will continue to develop over the coming years.
Baker St. Bacchus 2019
To say that this is quite an evolution from the intense, joyous 2018 Baker Street Bacchus would be an understatement. Alex Hurley has approached this wine a little differently from the 2018 vintage, looking to eke out more structure and texture through skin contact and partial ageing in old oak barrels from Chavy-Chouet in Meursault.
Aromatically, as a lover of textural wines, I was immediately struck by this. The nose of toasted grapefruit peel, lime zest, slightly green tropical fruits and just a hint of toasted oak and white pepper, was enough to get me salivating.
It delivers even more on the palate, with a green citrus and kiwi fruit fusion and tangy tropical fruits supported by a leesy, almost oily richness drawing on the Riesling ancestry of Bacchus. If I was going to draw the oft-used comparison to Sauvignon Blanc, this is much more like Pouilly-Fumé than New World, with those used Burgundy barrels imparting a delightful, smoky elegance.
Pimlico Road Pinot Noir Précoce 2019
Grapes: Pinot Noir Précoce
Well colour me surprised! I wouldn’t have thought that 2019 would have been a particularly strong year for still English reds, but this is the second Précoce from last year that has really impressed. Alex draws from both his prior winemaking experience and his barrel selection to see a strong influence from Burgundy and Beaujolais on this wine.
And speaking of colour, this wine certainly has plenty. The nose is open and perfumed with ripe cherry and wild raspberry, a crack of black pepper and floral notes.
The palate is rich, ripe and plump, again defying the expectations of a wine from a cooler English vintage. There’s a lovely concentration of fruits, with red cherry taking centre-stage, alongside more chewy, tangy black fruit and a pleasing tannic structure. A gently spiced streak and surprisingly potent booziness ensure that this light English red packs plenty of hidden depth.