Once more unto the breach

The British invasion of Calais' booze hypermarkets begins in earnest this weekend, but quantity does not always spell quality
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Within spitting distance of the Calais by-pass at junction 18, the functional Marcel Doret zone industrielle is host to a bewildering number of cash and carries. The ZI Marcel Doret is the sleazy underbelly of Calais, with "pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap" operations falling over themselves to compete for the attention of Brits in search of maximum alcohol at minimum price. There are pearls of value and quality to be found here though, particularly at the colourful DaveWest's Eastenders and at Perardel.

Within spitting distance of the Calais by-pass at junction 18, the functional Marcel Doret zone industrielle is host to a bewildering number of cash and carries. The ZI Marcel Doret is the sleazy underbelly of Calais, with "pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap" operations falling over themselves to compete for the attention of Brits in search of maximum alcohol at minimum price. There are pearls of value and quality to be found here though, particularly at the colourful DaveWest's Eastenders and at Perardel.

Five minutes up the by-pass, in the glorified shopping mall known as Cite de l'Europe off Junction 12, it looks like the aftermath of an urban riot inside Tesco Vin Plus. Ninety-three days, 9 hours, 11 minutes and 45 seconds to go to Le Grand Moment: even the digital millennium clock seems to be in a rush as the heavily-laden trolleys hurtle past, and ignore, the hapless wine adviser, Philippe Castre, on their way to the checkouts. Shoppers are paying about as much attention to the "A consommer avec moderation" notices as smokers do to the "smoking kills" warning on cigarette packets. Rather more to the point is the notice which sets out the guidelines on what you can take home (per person) free of duty: 110 litres of beer, 90 litres of wine (or 60 litres of champagne plus 30 litres of wine), 9 litres of spirits and 15 litres of fortified wine. (In fact the latter two should be 10 and 20 litres respectively.)

This weekend the serious invasion of Calais starts. Between now and Christmas, thousands of British-registered axles will groan under the weight of the vast quantities of booze bought in cash-and-carry city. The ending of duty free does not seem to have registered strongly on the cross-channel shopograph. Tesco alone estimates it takes more than quarter of a million (£not francs) every Saturday.

There's a sizeable Oddbins here too, and a Sainsbury's down the road, along with 37 cash and carries, three French hypermarkets and 12 supermarkets. They're all competing for a slice of the lucrative cake that accounts for an estimated 10-15 per cent of all off-licence booze consumed in Britain. Thanks to the continuing disparity between duty on wines and spirits in Britain and the Continent, Calais remains a hypodermic syringe mainlining a lot of often highly dubious liquid into the rump end of Britain.

Is it worth it? Despite the fact that much of what Calais has to offer varies between the dreary and the downright unsavoury, it is possible to find gems. The pound is strong and where profit margins are lower in France, on champagnes for instance, the difference in price can be as much as £10 a bottle. You can see why the British wine trade is gnashing its molars.

It must be particularly galling when French hypermarkets and supermarkets are sporting so much disappointingly mediocre negociant wine. I tasted it last week and there is a huge amount of dross dressed up in the apparently respectable livery of a vouvray, beaujolais or chablis label. The best buys in French supermarkets (beers and spirits apart) are mainly Bordeaux chateaux from good vintages (1995 and 1996) and champagnes.

Seemingly light-years away from Breughelesque Calais, but actually only 20 minutes towards Boulogne off junction four, Mille Vignes is a haven of calm. "Most people come to Calais either to buy the most alcohol at the cheapest price or to get the biggest savings. I'm trying to serve the quality end of the market," says Nick Sweet, whose Wimereux shop specialises in hand-picked domaine wines from the Rhone, Burgundy, Loire and Champagne.

About two-thirds of his customers are British but he's making inroads on the French who, according to Sweet, "think an Englishman running a wine shop can't know anything about wine". In fact Sweet has the best French range in the area and is on hand to dispense advice. Ca vaut le detour, as they (should) say.

WHERE TO BUY

Note: duty is £1.12 per bottle on table wines, £1.59 on sparkling wines, £1.49 on fortified wines and £5.48 on spirits. For cash, retailers work on an exchange rate between 9.50FF and 10FF.

Mille Vignes, 90-94 Rue Carnot, 62930 Wimereux (tel: 00 33 3 21 32 60 13), 10-1.30pm and 2.30-7pm, Tues-Sat. Sun 10-1pm.

Buy estate-bottled French wines, in particular the pure, raspberryish 1997 Rasteau, Domaine du Trapadis, 55FF (£5.61); the flavoursome 1998 Domaine Montrose Chardonnay, 28FF (£2.86) and superb house white burgundy in the 1997. Macon La Roche Vineuse, Olivier Merlin, 55FF (£5.61).

Perardel, Z I Marcel Doret (00 33 3 21 97 21 22), 8- 8pm.

The star buys here include the French wines, most notably the spicy 1996 Temptation Cairanne, 45FF (£4.59) and the selected champagnes, for example their own Perardel Champagne Grand Cru Brut, 95FF (£9.69).

EastEnders, Z I Marcel Doret (00 33 3 21 34 53 33), open 24 hours.

Good deals on odds such as the 1996 Morris Shiraz, £5.95 and 1993 Cesari Amarone, £6.95 and sods such as the Patamar, £1. Pol Roger, at £10.95, is also a snip.

Tesco Vin Plus, Cite de l'Europe, 62901 Coquelles (00 33 3 21 46 02 70), 8.30am-10pm, Mon-Sat.

Try the gamey, strawberryish 1996 Beaune, Louis Josse, 62FF (£6.33 versus £8.99 UK) and fine Sauternes, 1996 Chateau Guilhem de Rey, 74FF (£7.55 versus £11.99 UK). Best deals: bag-in-box Corbieres, 45 FF (£4.59 versus £11.89 UK), Tesco's Cava, 18 FF (£1.84 versus £4.99 UK).

Carrefour, Cite de l'Europe, 62231 Coquelles (00 33 3 21 46 75 55) 9am-10pm. Closed Sundays.

Decent New World selection plus good fine wine and champagne selection. Buy the 1996 La Demoiselle de Sociando Mallet, 129FF (£13.16 versus £19.99 UK).

Auchan, Avenue Roger Salenjro, 62100 Calais (00 33 3 21 46 92), 8.30am-10pm. Closed Sundays.

Fair claret and champagne. Lanson 116.90 FF (£11.93 versus £19.99 UK). At Sainsbury's (in same mall), buy Chardonnay Brut Methode Traditionelle, 29FF (£3.05 versus £5.99 UK); 1997 Koonunga Hill, 42.50FF (£4.47 versus £6.99 UK).

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