AN industrial unit may be an unpromising place to find fine wine, but it’s well worth taking the trouble to find The Hop, The Vine.
There’s a small poster on the bright red door of Unit 18 Dewley Court to reassure you that you’re in the right place.
Don’t hesitate, go right in, and you’ll find rows of goodies laid out on sturdy wooden benches and a very warm Geordie welcome from the George family.
The seed that led Philip and Cheryl George to set up a wine business was sown after a long family holiday in Australia and New Zealand a few years ago. When they came home they tried to get hold of some of the wines they’d enjoyed so much, but couldn’t find them.
Philip, who’s a microbiologist, based at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle, had to spend time in Bristol to take a further qualification and saw just the kind of wine shop there that he’d like to open back home. But when attempts to find suitable premises failed, the family decided to see if they could make a go of the business from the unit at Throckley.
Cheryl laughs that she didn’t think she’d find herself back at school studying to get a licence, but the family had experience in retail and Charlotte, Philip and Cheryl’s daughter, managed a branch of Oddbins until it was forced to close.
They know what they’re doing. The shop is open every weekday from 9am to 5.30pm, from 10am to 5pm on Saturday and 11am to 5pm, Sunday. “We don’t open evenings,” admits Philip, “it’s a bit too desolate round here at night.” It’s very much a team effort. Cheryl and Philip’s son Warren joins his sister and mum to mind the shop.
And decision-making is as democratic an affair as is ever possible in a family, with a show of hands about which wines to stock. “We make a joint decision about what to buy,” says Philip, “we sit down and look at what’s new.” They buy from a number of leading importers. “We used to go on vineyard holidays, but we’re too busy now,” says Cheryl. “It used to be a case of coming back with so much wine that we’d think which of the children we could leave behind.”
Their selection of wines is commendably wide. “And we’re happy to be led by our customers,” Philip adds. This explains the presence of some fine Rioja from Luis Cañas, also one of my favourite producers and a few unusual Italian wines, but it’s their first loves, Australia and New Zealand, that are best represented, especially some powerful, deeply fruity, winter-warming reds.
One firm family favourite is Thorne Clarke Terra Barossa Shiraz 2009 (£10.10), which is a lovely chewy red with plummy fruit, dusted with black pepper, balanced by a refreshing freshness. If you love Aussie Shiraz, you’ll be like a kiddy in a sweet shop at The Hop, The Vine.
Their selection of wines from Washington State and Oregon is as wide and enterprising as you’ll find anywhere in the North: exciting bottles from Erath and Northstar, alongside Snoqualmie, Columbia Crest and Domaine Ste Michelle. South Africa is pretty strong too. “We like to stock wines from growers who have real passion,” says Cheryl “and we’d love to think that we share a bit of that passion too in passing on what we’ve found.”
Cheryl hopes that “there’s something for everyone’s taste and every pocket here.” You may not find any three for a tenner or half-price deals at The Hop, The Vine, but there are plenty of tempting wines for below £10.
Cheryl is quick to stress that although some of the wines they stock are quite posh, her family is not the least bit stuffy about wine. “We can always learn from one another, no question is ever stupid,” she says. “If you stop asking questions you might as well close the coffin lid and screw it down.”
The business, based almost entirely on sales to personal callers, is thriving and Philip hopes they’ll be able to move into new premises.
“If they move, they might do well to change the name of the business: they do sell some fine beer, but wine is the main thing at The Hop, The Vine. “It just sounded that bit better than ‘The Vine, The Hop’”, Philip says.
WINE OF THE WEEK
Domaine Sainte Michelle Brut
Deliciously clean, creamy fizz from Washington State, it’s floral, lemony and with a hint of mineral salts. Super value. Try it with smoked salmon.
£13.40 (The Hop, The Vine, Throckley)
You’ll find cheaper champagnes on offer, but Champagne Jacquart, Mosaïque, Brut NV (£23.99, Carruthers & Kent) is a great buy: rich, but elegant, biscuity fruit is offset by lemony freshness and leads into a lingering, slightly salty finish. Dare to serve it with roast turkey. Jacquart is another producer that sets the highest standards. Their Blanc de Blanc Vintage 2005 (from Sainsbury’s in a gift box for £35.99) is delightfully elegant, creamy and fresh, with a zippy citrus acidity and a dry, lingering, almost chalky aftertaste – another sensational partner for smoked salmon.
Life membership of the Wine Society (£40) is a handsome gift for any wine lover. Join now and also benefit from one of their Christmas special offers, including the formidable 15 bottle ‘Christmas survival kit’. I tried a couple of Chilean wines from the box and enjoyed them very much: Leyda Chardonnay 2010, which is surprisingly zesty with a grapefruit, lemon and peachy flavour and Lascar Carmenère 2010, which has a big smell and taste of ripe brambles and tomato and a long, lingering, soft, savoury finish.