Food & Drink

The Grape Escape

24 hours of good food and wine in Calais

The Grape Escape

Brexit has caused a lot of change in the travel market, from having to queue in different lanes for passport control to having a cap put on the amount of wonderful French wine you can bring back to the UK after your holiday. 

It’s put a stop to the booze cruise of old; daytrippers filling their cars to the brim with cases of dead-cheap wine and beer from hypermarkets have disappeared. And while that pile-em-high mentality was a bit passé anyway, there’s still a real desire among British travellers to benefit from France’s wonderful produce back at home.

[See below for details on what the new rules are.]

The face of the huge mechanical dragon looks down at the camera, its mouth open and teeth bared

A new way to shop for wine in France

As Einstein said, though, the measure of intelligence is the ability to change, and with British consumers still very welcome in Calais, some retailers have been quick to find ways around the new rules. 

Jerôme Pont from Calais Vins says: “It was not the answer, to just give a Gallic shrug to the new realities of Brexit.” Instead, he says, they still want to help their British customers, so they’ve created a process for them to reclaim their VAT before they’ve even embarked the Eurotunnel on the way back home.

Using an app makes reclaiming VAT easy

Jerôme explains: “We’ve developed partnerships with Global Blue and Skiptax so that customers can reclaim around 15 percent VAT on purchases from Calais Vins. By scanning a barcode at the kiosks at the Eurotunnel terminal, the refund process is activated. Or, if using Skiptax, you just need to download an app and follow the simple instructions.”

Fed up of the way I buy wine (at the end of my weekly online food shop, bored rigid and not concentrating, I click through to the wines that are on offer and select the best ‘bargains’ whether I remember liking the wine or not), I decided to give this new post-Brexit booze cruise a try.

24 hours of good food and wine in Calais

The Grape Escape is what I’m calling the overnight break I had in Calais last week: a very good meal at a local restaurant, a kip in a well-priced hotel in town, and a return journey with a car-load of good wine curated by a true oenophile and bought at a much cheaper price than it would have been in the UK.

The front of a brasserie restaurant with a door in the middle of two big windows, dark brown surround and the words Histoire Ancienne above the door in gold block capitals

I took a lunchtime Eurotunnel crossing and drove 10 minutes into Calais, parking up at and checking in to the Ibis Styles Calais Centre hotel. After a wander around Calais, checking out the new seafront and the Calais Dragon (a 72-tonne mechanical dragon that stalks the prom, breathing fire and flapping its wings), I sought refuge from the weather in Histoire Ancienne. 

The high-street restaurant was cosy and elegant, and I sat, among many locals, admiring its checkerboard floor and dark wood brasserie booths. Having eaten the day’s special – the assiette de porc which contained five – yes FIVE – different types of pork – and drunk a couple of glasses of gorgeous red wine, I began to feel like I was on holiday.

A dark circular plate with a round terrine with a top layer of bright tomato sauce and garnished with a purple flower and delicate leaves. It’s accompanied with two quenelles of pale mousse and zig zags of green dressings on top.

The next morning, I was keen to meet Jerôme so off I went to Calais Vins, parking and snatching a coffee and pastry next door on my way. 

Save money on famous French wines

Jerôme and his partner Olivier are super-cavistes; their shops are bigger than high street shops but far from the gaping size of a wine hypermarket. They’ve been advising French people on wine for 25 years, although they both got a taste for wine much earlier than that; Jerôme remembers being encouraged by his father and grandfather at the grand age of 10 to taste and appreciate wines.

Their shops are renowned for coveted appellations like Fleurie, Médoc, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Meursault, Chinon, Chablis, Pomerol... and rare bottles like as Whispering Angel, Guigal, Jaboulet, Louis Latour, Joseph Drouhin, Grand Crus Chateau Talbot, Mouton Rothschild, Lafite Rotschild, Domaine Trapet and Marcel Deiss among others.

An exterior view of the Calais Vins shop and its large logo on the roof of the building which sits on a big corner plot in an industrial estate and adjoins a boulangerie and patisserie.

Advice from a wine expert

If much of that means nothing to you, don’t worry, you’re not alone! And, moreover, you’re not expected to be the expert. Jerôme – one of the few French ex rugby players who loves England, he jokes – is a total anglophile. He has excellent English and he understands that lots of people don’t want to learn about wine; they prefer to be advised by an expert.

He showed me around the shop; the wine is arranged by region, with fine wines kept separately, and there are burgeoning sections for spirits and northern French, Belgian and Alpine beers too.

But back to the wine. Jerôme is not – to put it bluntly – a snooty Frenchman who will look down his nose at you for your lack of wine knowledge. In fact, he tells me, he respects a lot about the British and their choices. “They aren’t bound by the same things as the French; which region should they like and not like, for example. The British just like a wine or they don’t – and they adapt better than the French,” he says.

A great selection of Sancerre, Gascogne, Gamay, Bordeaux

So, what did I end up buying? Well, I told Jerôme I was interested in finding out what quality I could get for the money I usually spend per bottle at the supermarket. Around the 7-9€ pricepoint, I said. His eyes lit up and he whispered, pulling me by the arm to follow him: “Ah, yes, I am such of fan of these, what I call, small miracles.”

An hour or so later, I left with a boot heaving with Jerôme’s small miracles; an exciting mix of Sancerre, Côtes de Gascogne, Loire Valley Gamay wine, Bordeaux Château Balland Larquette, Château Maurine and a Minervois from the fabulous wine maker Michel Escande of Domaine Borie de Maurel. Along with a box of Crémant de Bourgogne Bailly Lapierre that is reputed to be almost indistinguishable from Champagne and costs just 6,90€!

A close up of someone taking a bottle of red wine from a wooden shelf in an aisle in Calais Vins

Scanning my receipt at the Eurotunnel terminal was a doddle and I returned home from my overnighter feeling a bit brighter about post Brexit travel…  Great food, a little joie-de-vivre, some excellent wines boxed and packed in my boot; now that’s what I call a Grape Escape!

Shop details

Calais Vins - Rue Gutenberg, 62100 Calais
Open daily from 09.00am to 07.00pm. 

Olivier Vins et Compagnie - CD215, 62185 Fréthun 
Open daily from 09.00am to 07.00pm.

UK duty-free allowances

  • Beer - 42 litres 
  • Wine (not sparkling) - 18 litres 

Plus either: 

  • Spirits and other liquors over 22% alcohol - 4 litres; or 
  • Fortified wine (for example port, sherry), sparkling wine and alcoholic drinks up to 22% alcohol - 9 litres 

NB: You can split this last allowance, for example you could bring 4.5 litres of fortified wine and 2 litres of spirits (both half of your allowance).

Find out more about tax-free shopping with Eurotunnel here.

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About the Author

I am a journalist and editor, covering a wide range of lifestyle and travel subjects but always returning to my first love, France. Born unfortunately to non-French parents, I have spent my life trying to make up for it by spending as much time as I can in France or writing about it, studying the language, tirelessly dragging my children round all six sides of l'Hexagone, and endlessly chuntering to my husband about moving there.

To read more from Rachel, click here.

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