Belgium

“France will always be an important part of a wine list for a sommelier”

Wednesday May 25 2016 by Sharon Nagel

In 2015, French exports to Belgium dropped by nearly 6% in volume and 2% by value. There are rumours of supermarket buyers disgruntled by fluctuations in the price and quality of Bordeaux turning their back on entire vintages. In a country where Horeca channels boast a significant 25% market share and 25,000 restaurants, Vitisphere asked Belgium’s Best Sommelier 2014, Yanick Dehandschutter from the Sir Kwinten restaurant, to air his views on the current perception of French wines in the Belgian market.

How would you describe the situation for French wines in Belgium at the moment?

French wines are still hot in Belgium. Perhaps not like before, because originally Belgian customers had no choice. France in general is still very popular but the regions are changing. In the Sir Kwinten restaurant, Bordeaux is not as important as before. I am now seeing a lot of interest in the South of France, for example Languedoc is a very popular region with appellations like Faugères and Fitou. The Rhone Valley, too, is popular. I’m also noticing that the real wine specialists always love Burgundy. People who taste well and have a lot of experience with wine love Burgundy, whilst young people love to go to the South, to Languedoc and the Rhone; the more classic style of consumer still likes Bordeaux.

Why are people attracted to Languedoc?

I think they’re attracted to the story behind the wines. They hear about a lot of young producers making wines in a dynamic style, perhaps organic wines and they love the story so much they want to try the wines. Once they’ve tried them, they like them and will drink them again and again and again. At the moment, Languedoc is the most important region for me. I think Bordeaux is a bit too classic – young people are looking for something new. The wine has to be good – it’s not just about a good story.

Is price an issue for Bordeaux wines?

Yes, I think people find they have a lot of other regions for the same price but better quality. We see this every day in the restaurant – young people are very sensitive to the price-quality ratio and I think they find Bordeaux expensive. The fundamental issue though is more about the quality at those prices. They find better value for money in other regions.

What other types of criticism have you heard about French wines?

I think the main reason French wines are seeing market share falling is quite simply because they used to be the only ones available. They had no competition. Now, there are many new countries entering the market and there’s a lot of competition for France. I think consumers were tired of the French monopoly on the Belgian wine market and are now happy that France isn’t the only country for wine.

Which foreign countries are taking market shares from France?

In Belgium we are seeing a lot of Italian wines. The real wine connoisseurs, who know wine well and taste very well, either choose Burgundy or Italy. In Italy, they choose a lot of Piedmont, Barolo, Barbaresco. We are also seeing major changes in Spain which, like the South of France has a lot of good, young, dynamic wine makers at the moment. Over the last two or three years, the New World – Chile, South Africa etc – has become less important for us. Five years ago, Belgians used to like to drink Chilean or Argentinean wine, but now the hype is over. The New World is no longer an important component of the wine list for me.

Why is that?

I think it’s because of the alcohol levels. In Belgium, people are afraid of very high alcohol wines – they have to drive and find it too much. Every time I show people a bottle, they always ask what the alcohol content is. It is a very hot topic in Belgium. Obviously, my job is to educate people and teach them about new wines, but I think Belgians like elegant wines with less alcohol. Cuisine today is much more elegant also, with greater finesse and we have to pair it with similarly styled wines. I have been serving Beaujolais from Morgon recently and it goes down very well. People nowadays are enjoying lighter, fruity, higher acidity and elegant wines.

What is the average bottle price of wine at your restaurant?

The average price of a bottle on our wine list that I sell is about 50 euros, which is increasing. I’ve seen the average price rise over the last three years. People like to drink high quality wines. They may drink one or two bottles instead of four or five but the two bottles they drink will be good wines.

How is the restaurant industry in Belgium faring at the moment?

I think it’s doing very well. People always say the economy is not as good as it used to be but I think restaurants that use quality products and have a passionate approach to gastronomy are doing very well. Our restaurant is nearly always fully booked for lunch or dinner. The same is true for my colleagues here in the region. So I think we can infer from that, that the restaurant industry is booming, especially for restaurants offering good value for money. I try and keep sensible mark-ups. Some restaurants use multipliers of 4 or 5. Personally I work with a corkage concept. Customers are very sensitive about the price and they appreciate the fact that our wine list is not very expensive. They do compare prices from one restaurant to another so the price-quality ratio has to be good.

Can you find good value for money wines in France?

The most important region for me on my wine list is still France. For a sommelier, France is a significant and interesting country, particularly for lesser known regions and local grape varieties. I could mention the Loire – I am currently serving a Vouvray Chenin blanc and a Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine from Melon de Bourgogne for instance – as well as Bandol. The South-West is also an extremely interesting region. Our customers are not familiar with these wines so we have to serve them by the glass to make them more popular. Their value for money is really good – I can buy extremely good wines there for 10-12 euros. In terms of cuisine, purity and classic styles are more and more important and we need to find wines that mirror this. People want authenticity, terroir and a good story. France has a lot of this kind of wine. France will always be an important part of a wine list for a sommelier but the regions are changing. It is a huge country and can offer so many interesting, smaller, lesser-known regions alongside Bordeaux and Burgundy.

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