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Food & Drink: Crossing the blue Channel: Anthony Rose noses around Calais to judge the effects of the easing of excise duty last year

The French Channel ports seem to have been taken by surprise at the onslaught of British shoppers - tabloid newspaper readers on discount trips, bootleggers in vans, tourists toing and froing. Despite this, the new Sainsbury's in Mammouth's shopping mall in Calais, minimally signposted, looks empty compared with the bustling aisles of Mammouth itself. Prices are not that much lower than in the UK, but it was not so much cost as label which was holding back the few customers.

'We didn't want to bring a Sainsbury's label back from France,' said one. 'Since I'm in France, I might as well buy French,' said another.

The only person actually buying anything was Dave West from EastEnders, the swashbuckling Calais cash-and-carry warehouse. A former Romford costermonger, Mr West opened his warehouse six years ago but has really made hay since the relaxation of the excise duty guidelines in January last year. His buying ranges from job lots from people 'with cash-flow problems' to wines on promotion in hypermarkets, which he sells when the promotions end.

Others, though, are less buccaneer. Because of prohibitive setting-up costs, and the fact that it was not clear whether the Chancellor would cut or abolish excise duties, the British wine trade has been cautious about establishing outlets in French Channel ports. The success of the first wave has recently encouraged the big boys to follow. Tesco, which has bought the northern French chain Catteau, has plans to open a much bigger shop than Sainsbury's in the new Cite de l'Europe at the French entrance to the Channel tunnel, probably in 1996.

Shopping in any of the ports can be a hit-and-miss affair with considerable variation in the quality, range and styles of alcohol. Wines, in particular, vary from monotonous negociant blends to some excellent estate wines and growers' champagnes. In the more enlightened retailers, such as the Grape Shop in Boulogne and La Maison du Vin in Cherbourg, new world wines can be found, too.

The quality acts recently set up across the Channel, and a handful of existing French retailers, have exposed the inadequacies of the French supermarkets. Pandering to chauvinism, they stock almost entirely French wines with top-heavy sections of cheap, appellation controlee-dominated merchant blends. Where they do often offer good quality and choice, however, is in chateau-bottled clarets which, as bulk buyers, they can purchase at knockdown prices. If it is claret you are after, my advice is to have a wine merchant's list, or the useful sort of list put out by Unwins or Davisons, for price comparisons.

Since 1 January 1993, the trade in alcoholic drinks, both legal and illegal, across the Channel has increased to about 10 per cent of the UK market. The Wine & Spirit Association claims that the Government is losing pounds 1m a day on excise duties, while Whitbread suggests that cross-Channel shopping for booze cost the Treasury pounds 470m last year. The solution, they both say, is to bring duty rates down to narrow the gap between the UK and mainland Europe.

Some merchants with a foot in both camps claim their UK trade has not suffered. The Wine Society, with its corner shop at Hesdin in the Pas de Ca1ais, says it sold about 12,000 cases to members in 1993 with no loss of business in the UK. According to Neil Cotton at Calais Cash and Carry, an offshoot of Marco's wine warehouses in London, 'the superstores in the UK are a bigger threat to the independent merchant. The trade here is expanding the market overall.'

Customs and Excise put the revenue loss at pounds 200m, of which pounds 35m is from bootlegging. Speaking to the Off-Licence News Conference in April, Sir John Cope, Paymaster-General, said receipts from duty and VAT were up in every category, after a year of the single market, to pounds 6.3bn. 'If we were to cut the rate of duty, there is no way we would get more than a fraction of the billions of lost revenue back from increased UK sales,' he said.

There was brief panic among merchants on both sides of the Channel earlier this year when a Brussels official suggested that UK customers could now order their drink direct from France without having to pay UK duty. The official quickly had his knuckles rapped. With the big boys starting to colonise northern France, and with little prospect of the Government changing its mind on duty or duty-free mail order becoming a reality, it looks as though cross-Channel shopping will be a significant factor for the foreseeable future.

Guidelines for travellers bringing back alcohol from EU countries: beer 110 litres; wine 90 litres (of which 60 may be sparkling); fortified wine 20 litres; spirits 10 litres. Bring back more, and you must prove it is for personal use.

Next week: Anthony Rose makes his Channel port wine selections