Channel hop and shop?

WINE Oak chips are a way of getting the spicy character and barbecue- smoky flavours of oak into wine at a fraction of the cost of oak barrels.This is one of wine's hush-hush areas
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Most of what the postman pops through my letter box consists of press releases, invitations to new lager launches and instantly recyclable mounds from MAFF. So the arrival of readers' letters comes as a great relief. Apologies if I respond late, but here, in an effort to atone, are the answers to some recent questions.

Two readers have written on the tricky subject of cross-Channel shopping. A Burditt of Lewes has decided that a trip to France with the sole purpose of buying lots of wine is worth the outlay and would like to be pointed in the right direction; N Johnson from Manchester asks whether such a trip is worth it at all.

An exchange rate of around 7.50Fr to the pound coupled with the recent increase in VAT have made special trips harder to justify. Generally speaking, the best savings are in the 15 to 40Fr price range, especially where a retailer, such as the Grape Shop in Boulogne harbour, aims to sell bottles at pounds 1.50 less than they would cost at home as an incentive to buy in France. French hypermarkets are only really good for classified clarets (Auchan and Leclerc are the best).

The tax in England on a case of still wines is pounds 12.64, on sparkling and fortified, pounds 18.06, so the saving on fizz and port is greater. The duty on spirits is pounds 69.22 a case.

There is no limit to the amount you can bring back, but once you go over 90 litres of table wine, 20 litres of fortified wine, 110 litres of beer and ten litres of spirits, the onus is on you - not to mention your suspension - to show that you do not intend to set up a cash-and-carry warehouse in your own home.

As for where to go, until recently I would have said stick to Boulogne, where the choice of quality wine merchants and wines far outweighed cash- and-carry Calais. But the new Cite d'Europe, a vast American-style mall at the entrance to the Tunnel, provides serious competition in the shape of a giant Tesco. It carries their full range of wines plus add-on items, from a price-fighting Bordeaux Rouge, 11.15Fr, and zesty, fresh 1993 Sauvignon Blanc, JM Johnstone, 22.90Fr, to classy clarets, such as the sweetly ripe, slightly farmyardy 1990 Chateau Les Chalets, 40.65Fr, and the juicy, rich 1990 Chateau Les Grands Monteils, 60Fr. There is also a much smaller Victoria Wine.

The Grape Shop is the best place to buy wine in Boulogne. Try the excellent, yeasty 1993 Chateau des Grandes Noelles, Muscadet de Sevre et Maine sur lie, 32Fr; the concentrated 1994 Sancerre, Jean-Max Roger, 55Fr; the stylish Languedoc red,1992 Domaine Capion, 36Fr; and peppery 1992 LA Cetto Petite Syrah, 28Fr. Among a host of fine champagnes, Michel Genet's Blanc de Blancs, 99Fr, and the malty Georges Gardet Brut, 95Fr, are both excellent.

British retailers accept sterling but the exchange does vary between them.

What are oak chips and what is their place in wine production? asks J Shepherd, from London

New World winemakers use oak chips as a way of getting the spicy character and barbecue-smoky flavours of oak into wine at a fraction of the cost of oak barrels.This is one of wine's hush-hush areas. Look out for the words "oak influence" or "oak character". Basically, the chips, also known as microcasks or quercus fragmentus, are matchstick-size pieces of oak infused in a pillow-sized tea bag in wine during its fermentation. For red wine, infusion can take place during or after fermentation. According to Kym Milne, the Australian flying winemaker, oak chips are as varied in quality and character as coffee beans. If done well, he believes that most tasters can't tell oak chip from barrel. If done badly, a wine can taste charred or bitter. France forbids oak chips for appellation controlee wines, but allows them "experimentally" (in practice, elastically) for vins de pays. If you want to try the difference, compare the Hungarian oak chipped 1994 Matra Mountains Oaked Chardonnay, pounds 3.49, Safeway, and its barrel-fermented counterpart, the 1994 Chapel Hill Chardonnay, pounds 4.99, Safeway. Or compare Hugh Ryman's chipped 1994 Domaine de la Tuilerie, pounds 3.99, Somerfield, Victoria Wine with his barrel-fermented Domaine de Rivoyre, pounds 4.99, Somerfield, Safeway, Victoria Wine

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