While we enter December no more certain of our political fate than the day after the Brexit referendum, one thing does seem sure: sooner or later we are going to return to the time when getting off the ferry at Dover meant long queues at Customs, and a sweaty nervousness as you went through the green channel and hoped the bloke from Customs didn’t notice your guilty look as your 12 bottles of wine clanked away in the boot of your car.
How quickly we have forgotten the situation before the UK became part of the Single Market in 1992. Back then each adult was allowed to bring a grand total of nine litres of wine without paying duty. Going on a booze cruise was a choice between a disappointingly sparse return or risking being caught over the limit and having all your bottles confiscated (not to mention being fined and potentially losing your car).
As regular readers will know, I am something of a Francophile, and visit the country several times a year. My most recent trip was at the end of October; given that this might be the last time such a trip is possible without Customs limits, the suspension on my people carrier was given a good workout as it struggled up the ramp to the top deck of the Eurotunnel train.
Let’s not kid ourselves: the whole concept of driving to France to stock up the wine cellar is all about tax. Unless you are going to schlep all the way south to wine-producing regions, you are not really going to get any better wines in Calais than you can get here in Norfolk. It’s just that by crossing the Channel, you keep the Chancellor’s mitts out of your wallet.
The bald facts are these: in the UK, you pay a flat rate of duty on a bottle of table wine of £2.23; in addition, you pay VAT on the whole purchase price (including the duty). That means on a £5 bottle of wine, £2.96 is tax; even on a £10 bottle, £3.90 is tax. By contrast, France levies just 4p a bottle in duty; even with an unfavourable exchange rate, it’s easy to see the appeal of filling the boot up.
The flat-rate tax means the difference is largest at the bottom end of things, and for this reason the retailers who sprung up in Calais and other Channel ports tended to aim their wares at the cheapest end of the market. But I am pleased to report that a new breed of wine merchant is now available to the British wine-seeker, offering an altogether more sophisticated experience.
Cité d’Europe, the vast shopping centre right next to the Channel Tunnel terminal just outside Calais, has Terre de Boissons (literally, Land of Drinks). It stocks more than 600 French wines, as well as (unusually for a French retailer) more than 200 wines from other countries. In addition, it claims its beer range tops 1000.
But more important than the quantity is the quality; by bypassing the race to the bottom, there are some serious bargains to be had here (if not the rock bottom prices you might find in Calais’ many warehouse operations).
For example, I picked up a case of red Ventoux made by Rhône king Paul Jaboulet (a sure-fire sign of quality) for just €6.20 (about £5.50) a bottle – the Wine Society currently offers this at a shade under £9 a bottle. Viré Clessé Blanc, a 100% Chardonnay from southern Burgundy made by Gondard, was €11.80 (£10.45) – you will find this for sale in the UK for £18.99.
Buy just one case of each of these wines and you have already saved £144.36, which is considerably more than the Eurotunnel fare for your car and all its passengers.
These are quality wines at some serious savings. What’s more, you can stand in the shop and Google each wine to find both online reviews, and how much you are saving.
Of course, we may be about to throw away our ability to bring back anything other than paltry amounts of such wine; that said, each Brexit extension prolongs the time we have to take advantage, so in one sense at least, I’m quite happy for the politicians to keep kicking the can down the road.
Three wines Andy has enjoyed this month
Château Cissac Haut-Médoc, 1990
Bakers & Larners, £35
If you are looking for a bit of old school opulence to go with your Christmas dinner – look no further. This Cru Bourgeois claret has been matured to perfection in Bakers & Larners cellar, and although it’s not cheap, for a wine of this quality it’s stunning value. This will certainly be gracing my table over the festive period.
Séguret, Côtes du Rhône Villages, La Porte des Vents, 2018
Carrefour, Calais, €4.65
This is exactly the kind of bargain you can still find on a booze cruise, a fruity Rhône red from an up-and-coming village appellation, for well under a fiver. Séguret is a name to look out for here as well, because it doesn’t (yet) command the same prices as its near neighbours Gigondas and Vacquéras – but you will struggle to find it this good this cheap in the UK.
Toro Loco Superior Utiel-Requena 2018
Proof that tax notwithstanding, just occasionally you will find a decent bottle for less than a fiver. This is made mostly from the Bobal grape, with a little Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon to add some refinement. It is packed full of bramble fruit, pepper and spice, and you’ll struggle to find a better bargain red.
Article published in Feast Issue 42