The tax dodge that would make Dr Johnson proud

The oddity is that the French government is very helpful to wine buyers.

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He’s a small boy with a raised chin and an expression that is smug but not gloating: what I have, it conveys, is what everybody wants. And he may well be right, though the two bottles he is carrying – surely magnums, unless the lad is even titchier than he appears – are unlabelled, so it’s hard to know. The photograph was taken on Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Leica 60 years ago. Leica is 100 this year and still going strong; the pride of the French wine purchaser does not appear to have weathered quite so well.

Recently, I have been contemplating suicide in Burgundy, an odd place for a wine lover to want to end it all, but then the shelves of the rural supermarkets here could drive me to it. At least, six feet under in one of the world’s greatest wine-producing areas, I would be close to decent vines – not an accident likely to befall me at the local branch of Atac.

Of course, Burgundy has fabulous tasting rooms and wine shops in which to slaver over the many permutations of its principal grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It’s extraordinary, the difference a slight variation in soil and pruning, picking or vinification can make, but in Burgundy, where ownership is often a matter of a couple of feet, research is as vital as it is pleasurable. Getting to know Burgundy wines well is a life’s work, and most of us have to get home by dinnertime with something worth drinking. I don’t expect a wine-producing area to offer the global range, of, say, Waitrose – England still benefits from our history of raging thirst in what was, for a long time, a grapeless land. And anyway I doubt there are many Waitroses in the English hinterland, either.

The oddity is that the French government is very helpful to wine buyers: excise duty is €0.33 for a nine-litre case of still wine. In England, the equivalent is €30 (£24). This is not a libertarian rant; I am no Dr Johnson, adjudging excise a “hateful tax”. I believe in taxing leisure goods and am far too spendthrift to hold any useful opinions on the levels that may be appropriate. Besides, taxes are fascinating. My favourite is the one on hair powder, back when wigs were fashionable, that helped pay for the Napoleonic wars. But that thirst of ours makes wine a more reliable income stream than wigs.

There is, however, a way to buy wine without paying UK duty – one so pleasant that it is easy to forget, as you wander the charming walled town of Montreuil-sur-Mer, that you may have left your principles at the border. Just behind the Best Western hotel is the Wine Society’s overseas outlet, a little shop that resembles my fantasy of a French supermarket’s wine aisles. Except that, as well as a fresh, lightly gooseberry Loire Sauvignon Blanc from Domaine du Salvard at £5.80 instead of £7.95, or a ripe but taut Premier Cru Chablis Montmains for £14.80 rather than £18, you can buy Paul Pujol’s fruity Central Otago Pinot Noir or an outstandingly bosky Montsant, Latria Garnatxa-Carinyena, and save £2.75 on the New Zealander and £2 on the Spaniard. You must be a society member, but at £40 for a lifetime it’s worth it.

As Johnson wrote, “A Merchant’s desire is not of glory, but of gain; not of publick wealth, but of private emolument; he is, therefore, rarely to be consulted about . . . any designs of wide extent and distant consequence.” That is an excellent justification for taxation; but the extent and consequence of the Wine Society’s Montreuil outlet will keep me happy until French supermarkets start stocking bottles that an errand boy could feel proud to carry home.

Correction: Last month, I wrote that all wines in Quebec were sold at SAQ outlets. Although all wines are sold through the SAQ, Quebec does permit the sale of some locally bottled wines through corner shops

Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.


This article appears in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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