THE wave of new independent wine merchants is great news for North East wine lovers.
Some of them are even branching out. After less the two years’ trading in Walton Avenue, Tynemouth, The Wine Chambers has just opened a fine, second shop in a prime position in Front Street, Tynemouth.
It was a Herculean task to convert a one-time branch of the Midland Bank into a specialist wine store, with enough space to display over a thousand different lines. Organised on three levels, with the main body of the shop, a raised area at the back and the former cellar below, it invites curious wine lovers to spend time quietly browsing, a significant advantage over the Walton Avenue shop, which is organised in a rather foursquare off-licence fashion.
As the first customers were nosing their way into the shop, a yellow-jacketed workman was still hastily carting debris out from the garden behind the shop.
Proud owner Ben Chambers told me that seventy tons of concrete and brick rubble had to be removed to open up the space inside; and when it has also been restored, the garden, with its ancient well and statues of Roman gods should prove an exquisite setting for an informal tasting, sea frets and tradition British summer weather permitting.
“Getting people to try wines is key,” Ben told me. It’s one of the main things he’s learnt since the Walton Avenue shop opened. The bigger space inside the new shop will also allow him to organise informal tasting events too. What else has he learnt? “You can’t have enough chilled wine. It’s fine to have a £6.99 Sauvignon ready in the fridge, but we’ve found if there’s a £15 Sancerre there it’ll sell too – just because it’s ready chilled. That’s why we’ve put in a two-and-half metre-long fridge.”
Another canny move is to maintain an extraordinary selection of weird and wonderful spirits. I have no idea if, for example, Venezuelan rum is available anywhere else in the region, but as Ben said, “the weirder the stuff we have, the more people will come to see it – once the word gets around that we have got a wall of strange spirits.” And then, of course, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll be tempted to buy at least a bottle or two.
Another fascinating oddity is ‘Neige’: Canadian ‘apple ice wine’, made as its name hints, from frozen apples. I was sent a sample some months ago and have been waiting to discover a local stockist. £26 for a half-bottle of super-charged cider might sound a bit steep, but this powerful, sweet but extraordinarily tangy drink, with its subtle mix of spicy, ripe apple, honey and walnut flavours would give many a posh dessert wine a run for its money.
Another important lesson, taken to heart in Ben’s first days at Walton Avenue, is that personal service matters. It helps greatly that he exudes engaging enthusiasm for the products he stocks. He genuinely seems to love talking to customers, who, of course, respond by becoming regulars.
As yet the full range of wines has not found its way to the shelves. Ben admits that he hadn’t fully anticipated just how much more space he’d have in the new shop, but the choice is already impressive with no obviously weak areas.
He has sometimes expressed frustration that the more restricted space at the Walton Avenue shop hasn’t always allowed him to stock all that he would have liked. It will be fun to keep an eye on which new lines he’ll now be able to offer at Front Street. From a sound base in the New World, European classics have gradually taken up a greater proportion of shelf space in Walton Avenue, and in the new shop this trend looks set to continue, including a good selection of Rhône Valley wines, my wine of the week amongst them.
The extra space has allowed Ben to arrange his shelves in a way that browsers will find helpful, with clear division between countries and wine regions and with prices rising with each shelf, except for a middle band of (very) fine wines, properly reposing on their sides. Pricing in both shops remains reassuringly competitive.
Champagne is another strength, with emphasis on the wine from the finest family-owned estates including Pol Roger and Bollinger. It was Bolly that helped, with perhaps rather disconcerting appropriateness in a former bank, to launch the new shop, with a free tasting hosted by Katy Swift, the regional sales manager of Bollinger’s UK agents, Mentzendorff.
“It’s really good to see more independent specialists making good,” she agreed, “and the enthusiasm from Ben and his family is great.”
Bollinger’s inimitable Special Cuvée is available at the new shop at the special price of £32 while stocks last.
I was disappointed to leave before the Champagne corks had been popped, but I spent a few minutes earwigging the comments of the first customers as they looked around. “It’s lovely! It’s amazing!” enthused one woman. And I think she got it about right.
WINE OF THE WEEK
Saint-Péray, ‘Les Tanneurs’, Michel Chapoutier £15.99 The Wine Chambers
Superb, dry white from the northern Rhône. Mostly Marsanne, rich, honeyed, slightly floral, with green apple freshness and just a touch of spicy oak. Try it with classic fish dishes – it’ll stand up to a buttery sauce.
Few Rioja wineries are as good as CVNE. Year after year, they turn out wines that set the standard for everyone else. The dry white, Viña Real, Barrel Fermented 2011 (£9.99 Majestic) is a terrific blend of ripe, almost candied lemon, with subtle spicy oaking. Viña Real Crianza ‘Plata’, 2009 (£9.99 Bin 21) is full of ripe black fruits and just a suggestion of sun-dried tomatoes. Chewy, but elegant, it finishes with a kiss of spicy oak.
Viña Real Reserva ‘Oro’, 2005 (£17.49 Majestic and The Wine Society) is also deep, with a much more raisiny, pruney aroma overlaid with warm, spicy oak. It’s much silkier than the Crianza though less fruity. Viña Real Gran Reserva 2005, aged longer in oak is surprisingly different: more elegant, scented and spicy, with real freshness and much more length. It’s a remarkably fine wine that fully justifies the extra cost (£21.49 Majestic and The Wine Society).