Brexit's last orders for the booze cruise
The days of nipping over to Calais for a boot-load of bottles are numbered. SIMON WATKINS heads over in search of a bargain while he still can
'The Brits don't come to Calais for the beaches; the only reason they come here is for the wine,' declares Simon Delannoy, proprietor of The Calais Wine Superstore.
It is hard to argue otherwise. On an early morning in January the view from the ferry approaching Calais may be described as atmospheric, but hardly appealing. And yet here I am and, yes, it is for the wine.
Delannoy says he sells between 3 and 4 million bottles of wine a year, entirely to Brits, either those returning from a holiday further south, or day-trippers like myself. 'We've got people who come over every two or three weeks and have been doing so for years.'
The pound may have slumped against the euro, thanks to Brexit, but for British oenophiles, buying wine in France is still a bargain thanks to the far lower duty.
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The number of Brits who travel to France principally to buy wine is impossible to know, though Delannoy's wine sales alone suggests tens of thousands of customer visits each year.
But the tradition among many Brits of the regular trip to Northern France for cheap plonk (or inexpensive grands crus) is now facing a rather more existential threat than a weak currency.
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While Britain has been a full member of the EU, the amount of alcohol that Brits can bring back from France has been theoretically unlimited, just so long as you are travelling with your bottles and they are for personal consumption.
While there is no theoretically limit, in practice customs officers may suspect you are planning to re-sell the bottles if you bring in vast quantities. The UK Government has issued guidelines suggesting that customs are 'more likely to ask you questions' if you bring in more than 90 litres of wine – that's about 128 bottles.
But even for such modest personal wine lakes, the economics of the booze cruise are excellent, particularly if you live close to the Channel.
Raise a glass for the single market and the free movement of goods – though its days are numbered.
On top of the booze there are many other products which British shoppers pick up in France at lower prices. Washing powder is generally cheaper and I personally took the opportunity to stock up on my favourite brand of tinned cassoulet at around half the UK price. But of course these items are just the extras – it is the wine that generates the real savings.
No-one knows exactly what Brexit will mean for large scale personal wine shopping – and the Treasury did not reply to our inquiries on this question. But the logic of leaving the EU, and the best guesses from industry experts, is that this type of booze cruise is doomed.
Simon Stannard, director of EU and international affairs at the Wine and Spirits Trade Association, says: 'It all depends on the matter of how we leave, but we are working on the assumption that the current rules would cease to exist.'
So, to coin a phrase, we cannot have our wine and drink it. In Calais the outlook is overcast in every sense. Clouds obscure the weak winter sun and a chill wind cuts across the car-parks at The Calais Wine superstore and the nearby branch of Majestic Wine.
These wine emporia are located on a small roundabout in a trading estate on the eastern edge of Calais, just a few minutes from the ferry and tunnel terminals. The other well-known outlet, Pidou, is also a few hundred yards up the road.
There may be less picturesque parts of Calais, but they are hard to find. Beige, brown and grey concrete is the favoured architectural style and two huge electricity pylons stand directly in front of the Majestic store.
The most appealing thing about the view from the roundabout are the signs on both shops, promising savings of at least £4 a bottle on British prices. At this time of year, wine shoppers are thin on the ground. A British-registered Jaguar is reversing out of the car park, the manoeuvre made slightly harder by the crates of wine piled on the back seat, blocking the driver's rear-view. Nearby another Brit, John Wilkinson, is loading up his car boot with boxes.
'I've been coming for years. I come a now a couple of times a year. I've paid £214 for £536 worth of wine and its cost me £25 in petrol to get here,' he says.
His calculation does not include the price of his Channel crossing because The Calais Wine Supermarket pays the ticket price for customers who spend £250 or more.
But even with the ferry cost – £45 in my case – the savings are manifest at whatever outlet you choose. John Wilkinson is in little doubt that his booze cruise days are numbered: 'I think Brexit will put the kibosh on this.'
It may also put the kibosh on those businesses set up to cater to the British booze cruisers. Stannard at the Wine and Spirits Trade Association says: 'If you look at Majestic, part of their business model is that customers are able to pick up wine in France – that will cease.'
Majestic, which has two stores in Calais and its environs, declined to talk about what Brexit means to those outlets. A spokesman pointed out that the Calais operation accounted for just two out of its more than 200 stores.
Across the road at the Calais Wine Superstore, Simon Delannoy is happy to chat. He has been selling wine in Calais since 1993 and comes from a wine-trading family. His father was a wine negociant in Burgundy and while Delannoy comes across as utterly British, he also holds a French passport and his company is registered in France. 'We really felt it on June 24, 2016,' he says, recalling the morning after the referendum.
'The exchange rates crashed and our regular customers were calling us and some people were in shock. We had a lot of regulars saying they were putting off coming. That was a massive shock.
'Whatever anyone says, the best situation we have is the one we have now. It's the silliest thing. Some people can't see further than their back door.'
Delannoy is putting on a brave face. 'For now we are carrying on as normal. I hope it will go on… my whole life is in this.'
What exactly will replace the current open system is, of course, unknown. But everyone's best guess is that we will see a return to the old 'duty free' system. As Stannard points out, after Brexit 'the UK will be free to apply whatever duty free rules it wants'.
The likely return of pure duty free (ie, totally tax-free shopping while in transit to the EU) has allowed some pro-Brexit papers to claim Brexit will mean the 'return of the booze cruise' rather than its demise. It depends what you mean by booze cruise.
Fully duty free alcohol would indeed be even cheaper than the bottles available at French shops. Alcohol bought in Calais may not include UK duties, but it does include French ones. Genuine duty free would involve no duties whatsoever. But it will available on far lower quantities.
No-one knows what duty free allowances might be once we have quit Europe. As mentioned, the Treasury did not reply to requests for their current thinking on this issue.
But there are already rules on how much duty free you can bring into the UK when arriving from outside Europe and, assuming the UK sticks to these quotas or something like them, the quantities will be very small. Current rules allow just four litres of wine, one litre of spirits and 200 cigarettes.
Some, however, see an upside to Brexit in these likely changes and Stannard explains that different companies in the Wine and Spirits Trade Association have different interests. 'In fact our spirits members are quite keen to see the establishment of these duty free allowances,' he says. 'There were a lot of people who used to buy duty free spirits and it was good business in the past, because on duty free spirits there is a substantial saving for the consumer.'
The arithmetic is simple. French duty on wine is far lower than in the UK. French duty on spirits is also lower, but the difference is not as great. Thus, genuine duty free would create a bigger saving per bottle on spirits.
The return of cross-Channel duty free may also been a boon to the ferry companies, who have a captive audience on travellers with little else to do but shop during the 90 minute crossing.
But Jonathan Roberts, communications director at the UK Chamber of Shipping, says the value of this potential extra on-board trade is hard to value. 'If duty free returns it would be a nice thing to have, but it is difficult to quantify. Compared to when we last had it, there is much more competition on pricing in supermarkets. So it may not be as appealing to people as it used to be.'
And, of course, for the Channel shipping industry there are bigger concerns. In mid-January the tourist travellers on my ferry journey are a tiny minority. The vehicle deck is crammed with freight lorries and the shipping trade is rather more concerned about the effect Brexit may have on that business. 'Duty free would be a nice thing to have, but it is nothing compared to having trade move freely through ferry ports,' says Roberts.
For personal wine shoppers the duty free benefit would also pale into insignificance in comparison with the current system. Calais wine-shopper John Wilkinson has already worked this out and expects his trips solely to buy wine will have to come to an end. 'If the old duty free quotas come back you would not be able to buy enough to make it worthwhile. So I am going to have to cut back on how much wine I drink, which might not be a bad thing,' he jokes.
And then comes a surprise revelation. 'I voted to leave,' he declares. 'Yes, it's going to cost us in the short term, but the EU is on a train heading for a crash and this is our chance to get off.' It is at least a considered view and one taken despite the personal inconvenience.
And it would be petty for us Remainers to argue that cheap wine for UK tourists should be a significant factor in deciding on Brexit. In fact it would be almost as petty and trivial as wanting a blue passport. Almost.
But many will mourn the end of shopping for wine by the case on the continent. We will mourn the lost savings, of course, but also for how it makes us feel: part of a wider world with slightly broader horizons, where a country just 22 miles across a narrow stretch of water is just not quite so foreign.
Meanwhile, although the people of Calais might not miss the British drivers, they may miss the thriving trade. In the scale of the British and French economies even the loss of several thousand car loads of wine a year is unlikely to be material. But in Calais it may deal a more significant blow, at least according to Delannoy.
'They will lose the day trip traffic. People will not come over to France just for a day or two. And it will be dramatic. I think a quarter of the restaurants here would close if this trade stopped. Calais is not the most prosperous economy, there is already 13% unemployment.
'The shopkeepers here in Calais like us because we keep the Brits coming through. Back in 1993 there were just half the numbers of hotels rooms in Calais that there are now. It will go backwards, whatever people say.
'Hotels here will close. I know a number of hotel owners very well and they are still hoping to see a new golf course built near here – they do not understand it's the cheap wine that brings people.'
The recent summit between Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron majored on an agreement to co-operate on managing the border at Calais, including an extra £44.5million from Britain to help fund the border system. Macron himself visited Calais and inevitably the focus of attention during his visit was the migrant and border issues. But one wonders whether Macron is also aware of the potential risks to Calais' economy from Brexit.
Some in Britain will chant 'who cares?' But for many of us, when Brexit has happened, you may find, among many other things, 'Wine and Calais' engraved on our hearts.
Simon Watkins is a business and financial journalist
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