Have you ever given a second thought to Belgian wine? Me neither, until we moved to Belgium. If you’re as curious as we were about Belgian wine, then you’ve come to the right place! A great place to start a discussion about Belgian wine is at the annual expo, Megavino.
A Wine-Lover’s Expo
On Sunday we visited the annual Megavino wine expo here in Brussels. Guests can spend 16€ to walk around a huge exhibition space filled with numerous wine vendors. Oh, and you get to taste as much wine as you want. You’re given a wine glass at the door that you carry around the expo with you. As you move from stall to stall, vendors will offer a small sample of their wines. They’ll also chat with you about their products, enticing you to buy a bottle or two.
Even if you’re not a wine fan, it’s a great event. And if you are a wine fan, like my French boyfriend, then it’s like paradise. In the last two years that we’ve attended, Megavino has included wine from all over the world. French winemakers dominate the expo, though. This is to be expected since Belgium borders France. According to my boyfriend, it’s also because French wine is simply the best.
The French Factor
My boyfriend’s elevated opinion of French wine (he can’t help it, he’s French, after all) could be one reason for such a large presence at a Belgian wine expo. But it’s not the only one. For instance, last year’s Megavino included an entire section on Belgian wines only. The Belgian sector was absent this year, though. An area dedicated to independent French vineyards replaced it.
This led us to wonder, what is the Belgian wine market like? Is it overshadowed by French winemakers? Living in predominantly French-speaking Brussels, you can’t help but notice the French influence on culture here. From food to music to TV to politics, Belgian francophones are undoubtedly linked to France.
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Belgians Love French Wine
Of course, French wines are sought-after globally, not just in Belgium. Belgians are particularly in love with French wines, though. They are the largest importers of French wine of any country in the world. This explains the heavy French presence at Megavino. But does it mean Belgian wine should be completely discounted? Some would argue that yes, maybe it does. Recent events in Belgium’s viticulture have experts rethinking the Belgian wine market, however.
Belgian Wine Production – The Facts
There are 136 vineyards in Belgium, which produced almost 2 million liters in 2018. Belgium follows the European, origin-based classification system for wine. Wines are grouped into appellations. To carry the stamp of an appellation, winemakers must meet strict standards. These restrictions include where the grapes are grown and the process of making the wine. Belgium has 8 of these appellations. Four are in French-speaking Wallonia and four are in Dutch-speaking Flanders.
Most wines produced in Belgium are white or sparkling – about 80%. The other 20% is either red or rosé. Belgium’s colder climate is more suited to grapes like Chardonnay and Riesling. This accounts for the larger production of white and sparkling wines. Not to mention Belgian preferences, which run a bit higher for white than for red varieties, especially in Flanders.
Belgians Have High Wine Consumption
Belgium is considered a medium-sized wine-producing country, with approximately 384 hectares of vineyards. Although production has been increasing in recent years, the country doesn’t make enough wine to meet its consumption demands. In 2017, Belgians consumed 31.7 liters of wine per capita. According to the International Organization of Vine and Wine, Belgium is the fifth largest consumer of wine per capita in the world.
Wine Imported Into Belgium
To meet these demands, Belgium imports a great deal of its wine. It was one of the top wine-importing countries in the world in 2018, importing more than $1.2 million worth of wine. Within the EU, a large chunk of these imports come from France. According to Eurostat, in 2017 Belgium imported 3,049,432 hectoliters (or about 80.5 million US gallons) of wine from within the EU. More than one-third of those imports came from France, at 1,413,361 hectoliters. That amounts to €540.2 million worth of wine, and roughly 63 percent of the Belgian market share. Like I said, Belgians are the top consumers of French wine outside of France.
It’s safe to say that French wines dominate the Belgian market. The French preeminence has decreased in recent years, though. Some of its market share in Belgium has gone to Spanish, Italian, and New World wine. In recent years, Belgium’s own wine production has increased due to the effects of climate change.
Belgian Viticulture in Recent Years
In the last few years, Belgian wine production has soared. Belgium’s Federal Public Service economy agency (FPS) reported that wine production doubled between 2017 and 2018. Changes in wine production in Belgium, as in many parts of the world, are related to warmer temperatures. This can result in winemakers experimenting with different grape varieties. In Belgium, white and sparkling wines remain the favorites.
Belgian winemakers have reflected on what might be another symbol of rising Belgian influence in the wine market, at least domestically. At the annual wine competition the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, a Belgian wine won the 2019 International Revelation for sparkling wine. This is the first time in the 26-year history of the Concours that a Champagne has not taken this category. Belgian winemakers were delighted, signaling this win as international recognition for Belgian wine.
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What Does This Mean for Belgian Wine?
Does this recent spate of successes mark Belgium as the next up-and-comer in the wine industry? And will the country throw off the yolk of French wines anytime soon?
While Belgian winemakers are putting themselves on the map, it doesn’t seem likely that Belgians will stop buying French wine. In fact, wine specialists find that Belgians seem to have a renewed interest in French wines after being lukewarm toward it at the turn of the 21st century. Although, this is more the case in the southern region Wallonia, where preferences for red wines dominate. In Flanders, there is greater consumption of white wines and more openness to New World wines.
Belgium’s burgeoning wine market is good news for domestic production. But it won’t overtake the influence of French wines any time soon. Nor will the French dominance cede too much ground to imported wine from Italy, Spain, and the New World.
You can see the evidence at Megavino. Belgium is proud of its recent success and was able to revel a bit at last year’s expo. But the French wine booths are a mainstay. The French foothold on Belgian wine drinkers is firm for now – and Belgians don’t seem to have a problem with that.
Featured Image: the 2018 Megavino Expo