A connoisseur's guide to the booze cruise

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Calais is an anomaly. Time was when the busy French port was a stepping stone on the way to some more exotic location in France or beyond.

Calais is an anomaly. Time was when the busy French port was a stepping stone on the way to some more exotic location in France or beyond. It is not unattractive itself, with its sandy beaches, pretty surroundings and monuments to centuries of fortification. Part of the pleasure of passing through was picking up a bit of cheese, chocolate and charcuterie here, a bottle or two there.

Today, Calais has become a destination in its own right, but for the wrong reasons. After EU harmonisation we are, technically, free to bring in as much booze as we like from France without paying excise duty, as long as it's for our own consumption. (Customs and Excise sets guideline limits - 3,200 cigarettes, 90 litres of wine, 20 litres of fortified wine, etc, per person.) Like a giant syringe stuck into the body of the UK consumer, Calais is keeping us articifially pumped up with cheap booze and fags.

Following the success of early pioneers like Eastenders and the Grape Shop, the UK supermarkets and off-licences descended on Calais en masse to cash in. It always seemed a little odd because every booze cruiser buying their wines at Tesco or Sainsbury's means one less purchase in the UK. Indeed, the effect has been a substantial erosion of the UK wine trade's turnover. This year though, trade in Calais is down by an average of 30 per cent. Ironically, it's our own supermarkets that have played the biggest part in pricking their balloon. To be sure, the end of cheap ferry prices, and the fact that wines in France are 30 per cent more expensive for us in the UK since the introduction of the euro, are factors. But Bogofs (buy-one-get-one-free) and promotions at home have also done much to deflate our enthusiasm for the transmanche booze cruise.

Despite Calais's vino-collapso image, there is in fact a lot more to the quality wine side than the cash-and-carry-city moniker suggests. Illegal "running" has been stamped on by Customs and Excise and legitimate businesses are now allowed to flourish, with some interesting and even unexpected results. Eastenders is the first surprise. With Dave "wide as the Thames Estuary" West now in semi-retirement, its massive warehouse in the unlovely Zone Marcel Doret has cleaned up its act. It specialises in deals, with anything from £2 for a tasty 2000 Jamieson's Run Chardonnay to £14.95 for a 1999 Guigal Côte Rôtie. The wine buyer, Luis da Silva, is busy expanding the (in)famous Dog's Bollocks range to 14 wines, which include a palatable 2001 Merlot from Australia's Palandri at £1.95 (£1.75 if you buy six).

Elsewhere, Majestic's presence has added considerably to the range of excellent value deals. The expansion of Sainsbury's, with its raft of New World brands and aggressive pricing, has broadened the palette for British customers looking for their favourite wines at reduced prices. The Wine Collection, bringing with it the experienced Nick Sweet formerly of the excellent Mille Vignes in Wimereux, just north of Boulogne, adds a selection of quality wines, largely French, that are simply not available in the UK. Perhaps the biggest surprise though is the French outlets now making a difference. Franglais and Calais Vins (linked by brothers-in-law) show that the French can do excellent wine and service when they try. Both have excellent tasting bars with 30 wines on tasting at any one time. Service is friendly and knowledgeable. And the wines are a cut above most of the wines on the shelves of the French hypermarkets. Both are well worth the detour.

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