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By ERIC PFANNER ,  the NYTimes

dsc01764Verona, Italy, - Across much of Europe, wine consumption is flat or sinking. The United States is only slightly more buoyant. To stay in the game, the industry is trying hard to develop new markets, especially in Asia.

In China, perhaps the most promising Asian country for European producers, France has been the main beneficiary of growing consumer interest in wine. Now Italy is trying to catch up.

 

 

dsc01755This week at the Vinitaly wine fair in Verona, which bills itself as the largest wine gathering in the world, with more than 4,500 producers represented and more than 150,000 visitors expected, the organizers announced a partnership with the Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Fair, under which they will promote each other’s activities.

Among other things, Vinitaly will encourage Italian producers to exhibit their wines at the Hong Kong event — an important promotional tool for a highly fragmented industry.

Over all, Italian wine exports rose 13 percent last year, to 4.4 billion euros, or $5.8 billion, according to Vinitaly. But in Asia, Italy has some ground to make up. In the first six months of last year, France exported 5.5 million cases of wine to China, accounting for 48 percent of total imports, according to Chinese customs data. Italy, with fewer than one million cases, claimed a mere 8.3 percent of Chinese imports, putting it in third place, behind Australia.

“We need to do more to educate consumers,” said Lamberto Vallarino Gancia, president of Federvini, a trade group. “Asian consumers are very brand-conscious.”

Italy’s late start in Asia contrasts with its consistent strength in the United States, where it is the biggest foreign producer. In 2010, it supplied 30 percent of total American wine imports by value, according to the Commerce Department, compared with 24 percent provided by France.

Cultural ties have helped Italian winemakers in the United States, where French producers are still recovering from anti-French sentiment after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which the French government opposed.

In China, on the other hand, French wines have benefited from a perceived association with luxury and status. Wine from Bordeaux houses like Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild and Latour have soared in price in recent years, in part because of Chinese demand, wine dealers say. Chinese investors have even bought several historic Bordeaux chateaus.

Now there are signs that the Chinese enthusiasm for high-end Bordeaux may be waning slightly, with the price of Lafite-Rothschild easing from the highs recorded a year or two ago.

Is this the opening that the Italians needed? Italy has some noted wines, like Sassicaia from Tuscany and those produced by the house of Gaja in Piedmont, but few of them fetch the four-digit prices that are not uncommon for top Bordeaux in great vintages.

To try to strengthen the link in consumers’ minds between Italian wines and other examples of the finer things in life, the country’s wine industry has recruited the Altagamma Foundation, which represents Italian fashion houses and luxury goods producers, as another partner.

Santo Versace, brother of the fashion designer Donatella Versace and president of Altagamma, said at a news conference during Vinitaly that members of the group would feature Italian wines at fashion shows and other events around the world.

“Fashion, design, jewelry, food, hospitality — they all give shape to the way in which Italy is identified abroad, being at the same time the true engine of our economy,” Mr. Versace said in prepared remarks. He also said that promoting “synergy” among these industries could be beneficial.

To promote the association with fashion, Vinitaly organized an unusual tasting in which more than 100 of the best winemakers in Italy poured their wines to an invitation-only crowd — including a handful of Asian critics, bloggers and buyers.

Coordinated action like this is often lacking in the European wine industry, which celebrates the diversity of its producers, geographical origins and wine styles.

Thierry Desseauve, a French wine critic who has promoted French wines in Asia, said European vintners should look beyond old rivalries that have divided wine regions and countries, and work together to promote their products in growing Asian markets.

“We think there is not one country in the wine world, but one civilization, mostly a European civilization, and we need to develop this civilization in Asia,” he said at Vinitaly, which continues through Wednesday.