Raise a glass to a trip to France

Rory Fitzgerald has done the maths and claims that savings on wine have turned his family holiday to Brittany into a free jaunt. It’s the perfect excuse.

THE VIKINGS were right. One of life’s great pleasures is sailing off to foreign lands and returning home laden with plunder. An autumn ferry trip to France is a great way to take a short break and stock up for Christmas at the same time. However, those who last took the ferry to France in the 1980s might still be traumatised by memories of greasy chips and overheated cabins near the engine room.

Thankfully, the ferry to France has changed utterly: sea travel is romantic and luxurious once more. Indeed, the ships that sail to France nowadays would pass for a four star hotels - except with sea views on all sides.

Simply drive in to the belly of the behemoth in Ringaskiddy, pull up the handbrake, and your holiday is already underway. Because the crew are French, you can even be practicing your “petit peu de Francais” before you pass Crosshaven.

What’s more, if you drink wine, an autumn trip to France can essentially be free. Bear with me as I put mathematics in the service of two noble causes: free holidays and fine wines. In autumn, a return ferry trip to France for a car and a family of four costs about €450, including a basic cabin.

Let’s say your family consumes an average of two bottles of wine per week, at a cost of €10 per bottle. Over 45 weeks, this relatively modest consumption costs €900. You can easily make a saving of €5 per bottle by purchasing it in France. Therefore, by buying 90 bottles of wine with an average saving of €5 on each, your trip to France saves you €450 over 45 weeks.

As this is the cost of the ferry trip - including two nights of on-board accommodation - your autumn trip to France is essentially free - provided you don’t drink all the wine at once.

The reason for the price differential on wine is simple: tax. In Ireland, the excise duty on a 75cl bottle of wine is €1.97. On top of that, VAT is 23%. If you buy a cheap bottle of wine in Ireland, close to half the price you pay is going to the Revenue. If the French government tried to tax wine like that, the citizenry would start sharpening the guillotines again.

Ireland’s love affair with wine has been a remarkable cultural phenomenon of recent decades. Back in the 1980s, our idea of fine wine was a bottle of Blue Nun at Christmas. However, from 1996 to 2007, Irish wine consumption increased by an astonishing 136%. Nowadays, people in Borrisokane know their Beaujolais from their Bordeaux.

Although our national conversion to the grape may have seemed like a Celtic Tiger innovation, it was in fact merely a return to historical form: the Irish have been importing wine from the continent for centuries. Historical records from ports like Kinsale, Dingle and Galway show that the Irish have been heading off to the continent for a booze cruise ever since the Middle Ages.

Nowadays, it’s possible to make a quick dash to France in fine style over a weekend - rushing ashore for a few hours before coming back on board, laden with supplies. However, France is irresistible at any time of year - so why not take a few days to sample the off-peak delights of Brittany or Normandy?

An autumn jaunt to France has become an annual ritual for our family in recent years. The kids love the ferry, and France offers a treasure trove of charming towns, beaches and restaurants.

With two small children in tow, this year we stayed in Brittany’s Finistére region. After an hour’s easy drive from Roscoff we arrived at our mobile home at La Point St Gilles, a family-friendly five-star campsite in Benodet, on the south Breton coast. We had booked with Keycamp, who had laid on baby chairs, potties, and towels - thus freeing up valuable boot-space for the trip home. There were pleasant beaches just across the road, and the resort boasted a large water park, featuring baby pools, a lazy river and an array of waterslides.

Benodet is an ideal base to explore Brittany. Nearby, you can wander through nearby Quimper’s charming maze of medieval streets. Or, just along the coast, you can visit Concarneau, a walled town built on a fortified island. Inland, Locronan is a picturesque Breton village with deep Irish roots. The town’s name literally means “Ronan’s hermitage”, after the 5th century Irish monk who founded it.

After a few days leisurely sightseeing, it was time to make the return trip - and so the pillaging began. First, we raided the Super-U at St Pol de Leon, just a few kilometres from Roscoff. This yielded a good haul of jam, mustard, vinegar, olive oil and dried meats, as well as a few bottles of wine. The wine stores just nearer the ferry port know their market: we stopped at one with the word “Fáilte” cheerfully emblazoned over the door.

The difference to Irish prices is stark: a box of six Montepulciano d’Abruzzo cost us €21 — just €3.50 per bottle. The cheapest price I could find for the same wine for in Ireland was €9.85. That’s a saving of €6.35 per bottle.

Typical savings on sparking wines are even greater. We bought a box of six Asti Spumante for €28.50 — €4.75 per bottle. In Ireland, a similar bottle costs €13.95 — €9.20 more per bottle.

Thanks to the EU’s single market, you may now bring back any amount of wine and other produce — provided it’s all for personal use. However, a Revenue spokesperson told the Irish Examiner that “the indicative limits” for a bringing home alcohol from an EU member state are: 90 litres wine (of which only 60l can be sparkling), 110l of beer, 10l of spirits and 20l of liqueurs.

Ninety litres of wine equates to 120 standard bottles — per adult! We only purchased a small fraction of that amount and expect it to keep us going well into the New Year. To avoid purchasing gallons of anti-freeze, it’s wise to check the labels. French wines are strictly graded by quality: The best will have “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” on the label. The grade just below that is “Appellation d’Origine Vin De Qualité Supérieure”. The middle ranking French wines are labelled “Vin de Pays”. About half of all French wine is “Vin de Table”, the most basic grade. A three-litre “bag-in-box” of the latter can be €6.99 — the equivalent of €1.75 per bottle — at your own risk!

French supermarkets overwhelmingly stock French wines. However, the warehouse-style wine shops near the ferry ports are specifically aimed at Irish and British customers. Therefore, they stock many familiar New World wines. A box of six bottles of Australian McGuigan Chardonnay costs €27.54, or €4.59 per bottle. This usually costs from €9.99 per bottle in Irish supermarkets.

New World wines are reliable and you may already know which ones you like. However, if you want to experiment with French wines, most shops offer recommendations and will even sell you a single bottle at a discount and let you sample it there before deciding to buy.

Remarkably, even Irish-made products are cheaper in France. For example, a 70cl bottle of Bushmills will set you back €17.99, while a bottle of baileys will cost €18.95. Even Guinness is cheaper in France.

After one last bowl of moules frites in the sunshine, we joined the queues of other Irish cars in scraping back onboard the Pont Aven — our suspensions groaning under the weight of our vices. Hopefully, we can also bring back something of the French virtue of moderation in all things — including moderation itself.

HOW TO GET THERE

Five top tips

1. Travel light. You’ll need the space coming home.

2. Ring the ferry companies for the best fares — some “mini cruise” deals are not advertised online.

3. Order wine online in advance. Many ferry port shops allow you to order in advance and will have your purchases ready for collection. This saves time if you’re doing a quick turnaround and also allows you time to research the best wines.

4. Think of Christmas presents: The EU’s definition of “personal use” includes wine bought as gifts for family and friends.

5. Bring a large cool box if you want to bring home cheese and other perishables.

The lowdown

With Brittany Ferries, an autumn return ferry trip to France for a car with two adults and two kids costs from €428, including a basic inside 4-berth cabin. Price depends on cabin preference, vehicle size and the age of the children travelling. Brittany Ferries’ last 2012 sailing from Cork to Roscoff is on Nov 3. Irish Ferries sail from Rosslare up to mid-December.

They offer “mini cruise” packages for those heading to France for a same-day turnaround, or a single night. These cost from €331 for a car plus a basic 4 bed cabin.

Meanwhile, a couple plus a car and a basic 2-berth cabin starts from €267.

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