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Saturday, 14 November 2009

Wine-buying in France; Calais

Does the Pas-de-Calais region actually produce any wine? I doubt it. However, it is still a very good part of France in which to buy wine for the simple reason that it full of hypermarkets and can be done as a day trip from Cambridge.

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. 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 only around a year's supply if you share a bottle with your other half every weekend evening.

3) avoid very specialist, obscure or small-scale areas; if Savoie or Grand Cru Burgundy is your thing, you are unlikely to find much of it in a supermarket.

Better, 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 - there larger the shelf space, the safer the bet.

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; Auchan has a wide range of good, well-priced wines from all major areas of France.

7) remember you can stock up on other things too; look for local beers from northeast France and regional cheeses.

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.

Remember that the wines may well improve with age - plan on buying enough for this year and next; a couple can bring back enough wine for a bottle each weekend evening for two years.


Auchan - wine list (only in French):


Auchan Calais - map:


Cite Europe (in English):


Logis de France


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