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Red and white wines to summon the Christmas spirit

Wine dealer Ben Chambers picks his best wine buys for Taste readers to try out over the festive period

Ben Chambers of Wine Chambers in Tynemouth
Ben Chambers of Wine Chambers in Tynemouth

With the nights rapidly drawing in, the temperature inevitably plummeting and the Christmas decorations going up it can only mean one thing: Santa’s on his way.

The spirit of the season is certainly very much in evidence – in more ways than one – behind the green Georgian-style door of what was once Ian Sharp Antiques on Front Street, Tynemouth.

Cross the threshold and you won’t be greeted by Welsh rock and roll singer Shakin’ Stevens, however, who in 1981 posed the musical question: “Green door, what’s that secret you’re keeping?” (He never did tell us).

But you will find Ben Chambers. And there’s no mystery as to what he does for a living and what 23 Front Street is home to now: a wine and spirit shop.

The Wine Chambers (the latter part being a play on Ben’s surname) opened here in July last year.

It’s the younger brother to The Wine Chambers on Walton Avenue, North Shields, which Ben, in partnership with his mum and dad, Alan and Lynda, launched in March 2010.

Ben was just 22 when he opened that first shop. He’s now 26. If he seems young to be running one of the region’s top independent wine shops, stocking some truly exceptional bottles, then don’t be fooled.

He already holds a Wine and Spirit Education Trust level 3 qualification and next year intends to begin studying for his level 4 diploma.

And having grown up in the trade (Alan ran an off-licence in North Shields) and spent many a family holiday visiting vineyards with his parents, it was perhaps inevitable he would devote his life to encouraging others to appreciate the finer qualities of a good wine.

Not that this was his original destiny. Having read history at Goldsmiths and King’s College in London, he was drifting towards a career in banking and very nearly landed a job at Barclays.

But having left university in May 2008, by the July of that year it was obvious the UK was heading into a recession and with the banking sector contracting Ben’s route into Barclays also disappeared.

Instead he secured a job with a marketing firm and found himself working with the British multinational drinks company Diageo. “I realised there was room for a high quality, independent wine and spirits merchant,” he explains.

“Oddbins was tightening its belt, I saw an opportunity and with my parents backing decided to go for it. I hadn’t necessarily expected to go down this route but I don’t regret that I have.”

The Tynemouth and North Shields shops stock around 600 wines each, but at this time of year that number inevitably rises.

At the moment the Tynemouth outlet has approaching 1,000 different wines on offer from France, Spain, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, North America, Chile, Brazil and even Canada and Slovakia.

There are also English sparkling wines from Nyetimber and the Hindleap Bluebell Vineyard Estates in Sussex.

Ben chooses all the wines for the two shops. “Literally every wine on the shelves is hand picked.

I am the buyer and everything gets tried and tested before it comes in. I don’t buy on price. Obviously price is important, but the wine has to be right.

“People think that being a wine taster must be great, and yes, you go into a room and there will be 1,000 wines to try.

“But the trouble is you can’t bounce between them; you have to try them in order and it is quite difficult to pick the wheat from the chaff.

“In some cases I will visit the vineyards and I ship a lot of Burgundian wines. I was out there in March picking what we were going to have on offer this Christmas.

“I was in Italy in July and I am already planning next year’s trips and looking towards Christmas 2014. The festive season is a big time for us.”

It’s a big time for most people and drinkers are prepared to push the boat out when it comes to finding the perfect tipple to accompany their festive food.

But while the UK is becoming a nation of wine drinkers, we are still nervous about what to choose for special occasions.

Ben says people are more willing to take advice at Christmas. When it comes to choosing a wine, though, his advice is simple.

“The key for me is to have something you like. It is pointless having an oaky chardonnay which happens to go well with chicken or turkey, if you don’t like it.

“I get a lot of people coming in and saying ‘what would you have?’ But if you don’t share my tastes then what’s the point?

“And it’s a preconception that you have to have white wine with white meat and red with red.

“I recently hosted a wine dinner and matched a red wine with fish which people think you can’t do.

“But depending on how the fish is cooked and with the right appellation, then a red can go really well. People are amazed at how well it can work.

“You can quite happily get away with a red with turkey or goose. If that’s what you like then go with it.”

But with hundreds of High Street Christmas wine deals and thousands of varieties to choose from, it can all get a bit confusing.

So Ben has picked his choice of the best easy drinking festive wines to suit all tastes and budgets to help prepare for the big day.

:: The Wine Chambers, 23 Front Street, Tynemouth, and 59 Walton Avenue, North Shields, www.thewinechambers.co.uk

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