When Sharron Livingstone, who publishes the Channel Hoppers Guide, suggested I join her and Richard Bampfield, an amiable master of wine, for a taste of Calais on a wet and blustery January day, I agreed, but luckily thought better of the storm-tossed kedgeree breakfast. Having managed to avoid the depressing Zone Industrielle Marcel Doret for a whole year, I thought that in the line of duty at least (and she was offering dinner at Eric Memain's excellent La Pléiade Restaurant), Calais was on the list of things to be ticked off. The surprise was not so much the wines but rather how quickly things were moving.
Our breezy channel hop came in the wake of a European Court of Justice ruling which some expected, and many more hoped, would confirm that the Dutch taxman had been wrong to levy duty on wine bought in France when it crossed into Holland. A ruling that goods bought in other EU states could only be taxed in their country of origin would have been great news for wine drinkers in the UK, allowing us to save on the ferry crossing and buy our French wine on the internet free of the UK's £1.29 a bottle duty (compared to France's 2p). The European Court of so-called Justice spoilt the party of course, which was good news for the chancellor, whose drink and tobacco revenues amount to £15bn a year. Calais too breathed a sigh of relief, as well it might, because the faces we saw were Modiglianiesque in their length as it was.
Some of the cheap booze emporia, including Cheers, had simply closed down. Most others had done badly over the Christmas period. Putting a brave face on things, the Fagin-like Louis da Silva, from EastEnders, said that business was down around 20 per cent year on year. Why? "Beer is much cheaper now in the UK, wines too with all the promotions, and people are scared to come over because of customs, even though they've been told to ease off." According to da Silva, people are spending more though, and taking advantage of the internet to pre-order and collect.
There's also been a subtle shift in the pecking order. Giving the lie to the Bushism that "the trouble with the French is they have no word for entrepreneur", the British outlets, once by far the best for cross-Channel drink shopping, are giving way to a new generation of astute French retailers. It's not the hypermarkets but drinks retailers such as the two family-related businesses, Franglais and Calais Vins, that have become the real go-getters in Calais. Both have fine selections of French wines and good beers, and their trained staff's friendly approach is a world away from the old Gallic shrug. With prices like £14.99 for Pol Roger, £15.41 for Jacquesson and £15.50 for Charles Heidsieck, they're worth the detour. For the best value growers' champagnes, Perardel, rebranded as CPH, remains a treasure trove with the likes of Marguet-Bonnerave at £11.38 and the 1995 A R Lenoble £17.32.
Maybe it was because it was a quiet January day, but the hangover seemed to be lingering longer at the British outlets. Oddbins had handed over the franchise, the only one of its kind, to a group of individuals doing a very good job, and it's well worth taking them up on a free ferry trip if you pre-order £200 worth of goods online. There was little doing at Sainsbury's and Majestic and the biggest outlet, Tesco, at the Cité de l'Europe, seemed a bit down in the mouth with past-their-sell-by-date stocks of 2004 Rosemount Chardonnay and Rawson's Retreat still on the shelf. That was nothing, mind you, to Le Terroir's stock, which included dust-gathering, collectors' items of Bardolino and Barramundi. Which all goes to show that Calais still has something for everyone if you know where to look.
'The Channel Hoppers Guide' is published 1 April, www.channelhoppers.netReuse content