Brussels sprouts wine lovers

Belgium may be known for its beer, but Belgians are also partial to wine. Hans Kraak looks at what the Belgians drink and where they buy it from.

The Belgian market in numbers
The Belgian market in numbers

According to William Wouters, chairman of the Belgium Sommeliers Guild, if you want to find a good winery in Burgundy: “Check the wineries where cars with Belgian licence plates are parked.”

Wouters is proud of how much the Belgians know about French wines, though he adds there is a difference depending on which part of the country they come from. Brussels, the capital, is neutral territory. In Wallonia, the south, people prefer French wines. In Flanders, in the north, drinkers are more open to wines from the New World — and are willing to pay more for them. “People are more likely to pay an average of €10.00 per bottle,” he says.

Gido Van Imschoot, chairman of the Flemish Sommeliers Association, agrees but adds that the younger generation, from both parts of the country, “have become more adventurous. Young people fall massively for rosé.” Van Imschoot says that the consumption of rosé is also tied to the coast. “The tourist season at the Belgian coast starts with Easter. With the recent development of beach bars and trendy bars on the beach, the consumption of rosé has increased.”

The market at a glance

Belgium is an important market for wine consumption, with many wine connoisseurs among the 11m population. In 2016, Belgium came ninth in the ranking of import countries, importing approximately 300m litres. When it comes to value, Belgium ranks 10th, with sales of €900m ($1.100m), according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV).

In the past 20 years, the annual consumption of wine per head rose from 18 to 26 litres — or 1.24 percent of global consumption, according to the OIV — while the consumption of beer fell from 121 to 80 litres. Since then, the demand for cheap wines has fallen, while the demand for quality wine has remained stable. 

France remains the market leader, accounting for 44.9 percent of volume in 2016 and 55 percent of value. The markets of Wallonia and Brussels are traditionally a bit more focused on France, where the market share is approximately 60 percent; in Flanders it’s 40 percent. In 2016, Belgium imported more than 95m litres of French wine, valued at more than €325m. Nevertheless, between 2014 and 2016, the imports of French wine declined by about 13 percent in volume in favour of wines from the New World, such as South Africa and Chile. Imports from Spain and Italy also increased; these two countries are now in second and third place in Belgium. 

When it comes to still wines, red wines are in front at around 50 percent, followed by white wines at 30 percent and rosé at 20 percent. Of this, 72 percent of wines come from the supermarket, 25 percent from the on-trade and three percent from other places, according to Export Entreprises SA.

Domestic wine production has also grown rapidly in recent years, accounting for 753,000 litres in 2016, of which 48 percent was white and 35 percent was sparkling, with red and rosé accounting for the rest. In total, there are about 140 wine producers. 

Plenty to choose from

Whatever people want to drink, there is someone who can supply it, with more than 3,000 importers. “Every Belgian with a garage can import wine,” says Wouters. “In addition, we see that large trading houses are increasingly specialising in niche markets.”

Noted wine writer Frank van der Auwera says that, in his three decades of publishing his wine guide, he has seen major changes on the Belgian market. “The range and quality of the wines, including the cheaper ones, has increased enormously over the years,” he says, adding that after a decline, Australian wines are once again increasing. “On the other hand, Chile and South Africa are particularly stronger on our market.”

Van der Auwera also sees major differences between north and south. “Our language border is also a taste-and-supply boundary in many ways. The Walloons are indeed a bit more traditional and more focused on France,” he says. “Cahors, Anjou, Beaujolais are much more common there than in Flanders; the New World is almost non-existent.”

Van Imschoot thinks that French wines in Belgium are experiencing a renaissance. “At the beginning of the new millennium, France received a serious blow. Many people were frustrated about the high prices and the sometimes poor quality,” he says. “At the same time we got familiar with the more aromatic wines from New Zealand. Everyone preferred this Sauvignon rather than a flat Sancerre at the time. Or we bought ‘solidarity wine’ for the new South Africa.” 

Then, he added, Italy began to introduce original, rounded wines and Spain began to improve. While this made life difficult for French vignerons, it was “also an important signal for a new generation of young winemakers who realised that they had to take a different approach.” Today he is seeing a recurring interesting in France, as well as in the wines of Italy and Spain. “Italy, in particular, has become a popular holiday destination for Belgians and I am well aware of the demand to give lectures on wine regions in Italy.”

Sales manager Philippe Baeté of one of the bigger wine trading houses, Allied Vintners International/Het Wijnhuis in Antwerp, which delivers mainly to the on-trade, confirms the greater demand for Italian wines, especially from the southern regions. His company, founded in 1994, imports wines from around the world and has a stock of 1m bottles. “Previously most of it came from France, which is really shifting to wines from Italy,” he says, adding that it’s partly because French wine has become more expensive. “The Belgian is willing to pay around eight euros per bottle in our segment.”

When it comes to the on-trade, Wouters says: “I think there is a slight preference for white wines in restaurants. Often a white wine is served as an aperitif. Wines with fresh acidity, a lot of fruit, not too difficult, do well.” He adds that Belgians in general, but in Flanders in particular, are very fond of sparkling wine. “With Cava we belong to the frontrunners of the world.”

“Belgians are solid Champagne consumers,” agrees Van Imschoot. “With a consumption of almost 10m bottles on an annual basis, we have an important place in terms of export in the world. It is not surprising that, in 2015, the production of sparkling wine from Belgian soil increased by more than 50 percent.”

In Wallonia, on the other hand, says van der Auwera, Prosecco is more popular than Cava. And red wine is the top choice for still wine. “In Wallonia, nine out of 10 bottles are still red; in Flanders four out of 10 bottles are white.” When he looks back on the three decades of publishing his wine guide, he sees that the supply of wines with autochthonous grapes is growing. “This advance naturally goes hand in hand with the import of more wines from different countries and regions.” 

Wines from Eastern Europe are increasing, he says, while South Africa, Chile and Portugal are also on the rise. German wine, however, does not do well on the Belgian market. “Why is it still a mystery to me,” he admits, speculating that perhaps consumers have had bad experiences in the past. Likewise, van der Auwera believes that wines from the Loire are still undervalued, even by sommeliers. “I also see the share of organic wines is rising.”

Where it’s drunk

The majority of Belgians drink their wine at home or in private circles — and the wine usually comes from the supermarket. The fact that a lot of wine is drunk at home, according to Van Imschoot, has to do with alcohol legislation and the strict checks of drivers, particularly on weekends. “Of course you will find full restaurants on Saturdays and Sundays, but consumer behaviour has adjusted,” he says. 

But Wouters adds: “Belgians will not easily serve you a wine of lesser quality at home. This tradition dates from the time that after the Sunday mass a good bottle of wine came to the table.” Wouters does not recognise a true wine bar culture in Belgium, as might be found in southern Europe. “It’s not like we drink wine in a bar as in Italy or Spain and then go to another bar again,” he says. “In Belgium we have occasions where we combine wine with food, more like in restaurants.”

The number of wine bars is growing, however. “There have been a number of wine bars in the big cities for a long time, but in Bruges, for example, four new wine bars have opened in five years,” says Van Imschoot. “Many owners combine the wine bar with the sale of wine.”

When it comes to price, Van Imschoot makes a distinction between people who buy their wine from the small “cavist” — or specialised wine shop — and those who bring a bottle of wine from the shelves of a large department store. “I checked with wine merchants and their average price for a bottle for the on-trade lies around €9.00 to €12.00,” he says. “The department stores score a lot lower with an average of €3.50 to €4.00 per bottle.” 

As for quality, he says that when he tries wines from supermarkets and department stores, “sometimes I am disillusioned, but occasionally I taste real top wines.” He has found some good wines at retailers including Bio-Planet, Spar Retail, Colruyt and Delhaize. “You can find good and affordable wines in the department stores,” he says, “but you have to have a guide who takes you through this wine jungle.”

When it comes to Belgium, one thing is certain: Belgians have plenty of opportunity to try new things. As Van der Auwerda says: “You can blindfold a Belgium in a shopping street, give him a push and he will probably fall into a tasting.”

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