Mention of a ‘booze cruise’ is a very 1990s concept in the UK. Excitement about the Channel Tunnel finally opening led to convoys of grey Volvo Estates heading across the English Channel to take advantage of lower taxes on mainly French wine.
It felt exciting and exotic to be physically linked to continental Europe.
But, the flow of Volvos eventually dried up with the rise of ‘New World’ varietal wines available at low prices in the UK supermarkets. Calais suffered as stores that once thronged with thirsty Brits had to close.
Fast-forward to the present day and it seems that, despite many Britons’ penchant for leaving the European Union, Brexit is being blamed for re-opening the road to Calais.
Millennials – many of whom voted Remain in the 2016 referendum, of course – are reportedly taking advantage of their last bit of free movement and stocking up before forecast price rises kick-in after Brexit.
So, is the booze cruise worth it?
We took the journey and, below, we’ve considered it based on two motivations for a day trip:
- Stocking up for a special occasion, whether it’s a wedding or party
- Wine lovers looking for something a bit different and not just a warehouse of brands
The party planner
On our trip, four of us set out at 05.45 from London to get an early crossing into Calais. With the roads clear, and no queues at Folkestone, we were in France before we knew it.
These stores aren’t set up for wine enthusiasts and certainly follow the model of pile ‘em high and flog ‘em cheap.
The tasting area of the Calais Wine Superstore has a distinct smell of bleach, suggesting an overly enthusiastic tasting party may have passed through early that day.
Having a look at the prices around these air hangars of branded wine, the Champagne prices were on par with Christmas discount sales in the UK supermarkets, so were an easy pass.
You might once have reached for a keenly priced Crémant, but these alternative French sparkling wines are becoming easier to find in the UK, so again it was a pass.
There were, however, some good deals. Porta 6, of Saturday Kitchen Fame, was showing a big saving at £3.30 a bottle in The Calais Wine Superstore and £3.79 in Majestic.
Top names such as Guigal and Whispering Angel seemed to be able to keep their prices a little higher and deals looked less attractive at the £10-a-bottle mark. However, many of the branded reds and whites below £10 showed good savings.
To make things a little easier to evaluate, here’s a little comparison table with savings:
Cost of Travel:
- Eurotunnel: £60+
- Petrol from London: £60
Wine Example: Côtes du Rhône, E. Guigal
- The Calais Wine Superstore: £7.99
- E. Leclerc: €8.50
- Waitrose: £11.99 (£8.99 when 25% off sale is on)
Saving: £4-a-bottle when at full price in the UK, but only £1 when discounted
Wine Example: Porta 6
- Majestic Calais: £3.79
- Majestic UK: £8.99 (£7.99 as part of six)
Savings: £5.20-a-bottle at full price, but £4.20 discounted
To break even, you will need to buy 36 bottles or more, which is no problem for most weddings.
It’s still a great day out if you do need to cater for a mass of friends and family, and well worth the adventure if, after you’re done, you can nip in the car and drive along the coast.
For wine lovers
The Calais we’ve described above won’t cut it for wine aficionados.
But, step beyond Calais and there are some fantastic spots offering broader ranges. After a lot of driving driving around, we’ve whittled the stops down to offer a suggested itinerary for the day.
Head 25 minutes south-east of Calais to Ardres. This small, beautiful, French village feels a million miles from the wine warehouses of Calais. There’s a carpark in the centre, with a boulangerie that is great for breakfast if you took the early train.
Just a short walk from the centre we found Boursot’s – a wine store with a brilliantly interesting and curated selection.
The owner, Guy Boursot, is an Englishman who’s been in France several years and has a rich history in the wine trade.
Among the wines we picked out were Morrillon Blanc for £8.50, a Chardonnay from Languedoc-Roussillon that included a small percentage of Noble Rot-affected grapes blended in; think Ken Forrester’s FMC but a little sweeter.
We also found a lovely, light, biodynamic Pic-St-Loup at £6.50 and a St-Estèphe with 12 years of bottle age for £13.40.
After leaving with a number of wines under-arm in a mish-mash of cases, we stopped off for a coffee outside the beautiful Hotel de Ville – Ardres’ Town Hall – for a well-earned rest.
A drive due west across the beautiful Haut de France countryside for 35 minutes will bring you out at the busy seaside town of Boulogne-sur-Mer.
South-west of the town is a huge E. Leclerc, a French supermarket known for low prices. This isn’t the sort of place you’d expect to find real variety, but its huge wine section has a Bordeaux offering better than many fine wine stores in London. It is a mini-tour around France’s best known regions and names, which we thought was great for people on a day trip with limited time to shop around. You can also pick cheese to go with your selections, of course.
We picked out an aged Château d’Armailhac for under €40, a white Faugères and red Savigny-lès-Beaune for under €16.
Once happy with our haul, we took a short drive back to the centre of Boulogne-sur-Mer and found ourselves on the seafront.
Be careful here, because parking is hard to come by and the car park on the front, we were told, is permanently full.
Having navigated the parking challenge, we headed for lunch at the Michelin-starred La Matelote.
With an extremely reasonable set price set lunch at €28 and a bottle of Batailley 2006 at €60 to wash it down, everyone was feeling happy with life; not that our designated driver could enjoy the wine too much, of course.
Other recommendations for that area include Wimereux, another short drive along the coast and home to Michelin-standard restaurants. We passed that up for a walk on the beach and to watch the sun set at a local bar.
Sitting there, the group sipped beers and started to ask the question, ‘do you think we could change the train back and stay the night?’. A sign of not wanting to leave, and testament to a great day out.