Saturday, 14 November 2009
Wine-buying in France; Calais
Calais is a pretty soulless place at the best of times - flat, bleak, mostly destroyed during the war, it is a working port with the refugee centre of Sangatte just up the road. Bill Bryson describes it in his Notes from a Small Island as "an interesting place that exists for solely for the purpose of giving English people in shell suits somewhere to go for the day" and its buildings as examples of "1950s planners smitten with the novel possibilities of concrete".
Hardly an idyllic day-trip then, but Calais' main attraction is its large number of hypermarkets in the Channel Tunnel terminal area known as "Cite Europe".
Whether you are travelling through Calais on the way back to the UK or just coming across for the day, this is the place to stock up on wine if you are looking for some everyday-drinking bottles. Stick to a few simple principles and you can have an instant cellar of reliable, enjoyable wine for a lot less than it would cost in the UK - even if you include the travel costs of getting there.
One of my principles when buying wine is to try and get it as close to the region in which it is produced as possible - and the smaller the wine-producing area, the nearer you need to get to find the decent stuff. Now, a good wine merchant, of which Cambridge has plenty, will always be able to get good wines from specialist producers in smaller regions, but then you are generally looking at a different price bracket to everyday wines. Wine-buying in Calais is about getting good bottles of mainstream French wines that are, or at least should be, more interesting and cost rather less that what you'll find in a UK supermarket.
To get the best out of a day trip to Calais then, you need to do the following:
1) travel out of season; Calais is never that nice a place, so don't go for the scenery; out of season, the crossing will be much cheaper than in the height of summer when all the schools are on holiday
2) you do need to buy a fair amount of wine in order to offset the costs of getting to Calais and back; the "working amount" maximum for personal import limits is 90 litres, which is 120 bottles. This may seem like a lot, but is perhaps only around a year's supply for two people and many of the wines will improve with age.
3) avoid very specialist or small-scale areas, such as Burgundy or Alsace; the wines from both regions can be absolutely fantastic, but when supermarket shopping, it is better to stick to the larger, more reliable areas such as Bordeaux, the south west in general (Corbieres, Languedoc-Rousillon) and the southern Rhone. A good guide is to look at the volume of shelf space given to a particular region - Bordeaux will probably have a whole wall, whilst Burgundy may have just a few different types.
4) choose your price range - in my experience, French supermarkets tend to specialise in in wines at the €4 - €10 price range. Anything cheaper may well be fine, perhaps a little rustic, but if you don't like it you can always put it in the cooking. Anything more expensive is really the domain of more specialist sellers.
5) look for medal-winners in regional competitions; wine competitions have had something of a bad press in recent years, especially the larger ones, but local competitions have a reputation to maintain and medals here really do mean something.
6) choose a good supermarket - Carrefour is a very large, "hard-discount" chain and I have had more disappointing wines from here than from anywhere else - not bad ones, just not very exciting. Auchan, by contrast, has always seemed to have very good wines with real flavour and interest and I have become something of a regular at their Calais branch.
There are also a number of UK outlets (the major supermarkets and wine retailers) which have a branch in Calais to take advantage of the lower tax rates there. Personally, I prefer the idea of buying French wine from a French supermarket and hoping to be pleasantly surprised - rather than just buying a bog-standard New World wine at a slightly lower price.
7) remember you can stock up on other things too; local beers from northeast France (i.e near the Belgian and German borders with all their good influences) can be excellent, as can cheeses and sliced meats generally.
8) allow plenty of time for your shopping; there are some seriously big hypermarkets in Cite Europe with plenty of things to look at, so two hours just for your wine is sensible, plus time for anything else
Depending on whether you just go for the shopping or do want something of a day trip, you can also head up the coastal road to Boulogne - with its walled old town on a hilltop, it's much more worthy of a visit and event has a couple of Logis de France hotel restaurants that are usually worth seeking out.
If you are travelling further afield and just using Calais as your base for travelling between Cambridge and France, it is still worth stocking up at Cite Europe, albeit on your way back and not out - 120 bottles of wine are quite heavy and even a big car will feel wallowy with so much weight on board, which is not ideal for B-road cruising during your two-week driving holiday.
Once home, remember that the wines may well improve with age - the French seem to like wines with aging potential and the wines I have bought from Auchan are generally sold at two years from the vintage, just ready for drinking at three and, given the chance, will improve significantly for a good few more years after that, so you almost need to plan on having next year's stocks maturing in your cellar (or under the stairs) now.
If you can't manage that and you find the wine a bit too tannic, then definitely try decanting an hour or so before drinking to soften the reds or open up the whites.
Auchan - wine list (only in French):
Auchan Calais - map:
Cite Europe (in English):
Logis de France