I WAS driving around the Billy Mill roundabout at the end of the Coast Road a few weeks ago and spotted a board advertising a new specialist wine merchant in Tynemouth.
I wasn’t expecting to find anything special, but thought I’d better take a look. Its name, The Wine Chambers, didn’t excite me, but the neat little shop at 59 Walton Avenue turns out to be a wine lover’s delight. It was opened in May by Ben Chambers (hence the name) who, after Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a history degree from London University, spent just long enough in marketing to realise that it wasn’t what he really wanted to do.
“I put the decision that led to the opening of the shop down to one wine,” Ben told me. It’s the Tinpot Hut Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough New Zealand – my wine of the week. He tasted it during a meal with his parents at the Gleneagles Hotel and was bowled over by it. “I tried all over the place to get it, but no one stocked it – or wouldn’t stock it. I discovered other interesting wines and one thing led to another. We talked and said: “Why not give it go and open a wine shop?”
The decision was based on a pretty sound knowledge of the drinks business. For many years, Ben’s parents had run a tobacconist and off-licence in Tynemouth.
A passion for wine meant family holidays in wine-producing regions. “I remember going to lots of different vineyards,” he said. “Big producers of cava in northern Spain, Codorníu and Friexenet, a vineyard in Tuscany I can never quite remember the name of but it was full of pictures of Pavarotti and Frank Sinatra, because they used to go there, and then Jerez. I struggled at first and then gradually got more willing.”
Once old enough, Ben was also encouraged by Jesmond wine merchants Richard Granger, who have continued to give him friendly advice.
“I’m very much learning on the job,” he admits, but the shop – with an impressive range of more than 500 wines as well as 100 fine whiskies and local beers – shows a shrewd understanding of the market and a keen palate. No wine makes the shelves without being tried and tested.
“My strong points,” Ben says, “definitely include Australia, especially South Australia’s McClaren Vale.”
His Chilean, Argentine, Italian, New Zealand, Spanish and French selections are also very strong – including fine red Navarra from Bodegas Ochoa, one of my favourites, even up to the superb 2000 Gran Reserva at £22.79.
Red Bordeaux has sold far better than he dared to hope and has amazed even his suppliers. In a fortnight, he sold six cases of a single Pomerol, Château Mazeyres 2007, at £20 a bottle. “What on earth are you doing with it?” the surprised but delighted importers asked when he put in an order for more.
Other fine clarets have done well too. His selection of Burgundy is smaller but quite adventurous, including, for example, a zesty, subtle example of the only Sauvignon Blanc from the region – Saint Bris – from a growers based in nearby Chablis, Simmonet-Febvre (£12.49).
There are some weaknesses, of course, some of which come down to personal taste, but it must surely be easier to sell wine you enjoy yourself. “I’ve never got to grips with Pinot Grigio,” Ben reveals and he says that he “struggles” with old Hunter Valley Semillons from New South Wales. These Aussie originals can be an acquired taste, but are well worth the struggle in my opinion.
Once through the door, customers tend to linger long over the goodies on the shelves. One man came in one Sunday and insisted on buying a bottle to be opened and shared there and then while he spent time choosing other things. After 4pm on Friday afternoons, Saturdays and Sundays there’s now always a bottle or two open on the counter to taste.
While I was talking to Ben, a young woman came in with her toddler to find a special bottle for her husband who’d had a tough week at work. While Ben suggested a few possibilities, his mother, who’d come in for a while to help, produced a box of toys and sat down on the floor with the youngster, who was soon engrossed in a colouring book. How many other wine shops offer that kind of service?
Another man dropped by and got talking. He was cycling past the shop one day, stopped for a look and keeps coming back. “I’m like a kiddie in a sweet shop here,” he told me, “you find lots of things here you don’t see in other shops.” He’s right. The Wine Chambers is the kind of refreshingly different wine shop that ought to excite any wine lover with a sense of adventure. It deserves to do well.
ARGENTINE Bonarda, Colonia Las Lliebres 2008 (£8.49 The Wine Chambers) is a deep purply red; it has bags of cherry and damson fruit, with a salty tang and plenty of grippy tannins. It’s funky, different, and typical of the adventurous, exciting wines chosen by Ben Chambers. Tufarello Nero di Troia 2009 (£9.99) from Puglia in southern Italy is another. It’s deliciously fruity and slightly savoury – a super balance.
Clonakilla Shiraz 2008 (£15.49) from Hilltops, New South Wales, is far removed from the average bottle of fruity Aussie Shiraz, and concentration: a blend of white pepper with juicy black cherry, blueberry and mulberry flavours and a hint of leather with ripe tannins, it lacks nothing in flavour.
Soave Superiore Classico 2008 from the Cantina di Monteforte (£8.49), after a year in oak, is an intriguing mix of the honey, melon and hazelnut flavours. Another winner.
WINE OF THE WEEK
Tinpot Hut, Sauvignon Blanc 2009 £9.99 The Wine Chambers
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t get much better than this tangy dry white with its gooseberry, tomato stalk and passion fruit aromas. Perfect with seafood, or even a cheese omelette with salad.