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MILAN (Reuters Life!) - Sales of top-shelf wines from Tuscany are set to suffer this year as global economic downturn drains consumer thirst for full-body reds, the region's winemakers said on Thursday.
"We are coming out of a very difficult year. The crisis has hit our sector which suffers inevitably from a fall in tourism," Federico Carletti, chairman of consortium of makers of full-body reds Rosso and Nobile di Montepulciano, said in a statement.
"The 2009 outlook is uncertain, to say the least, because of excess supply and unbelievable competition for the markets," Carletti said as his and other Tuscan wine groups unveil new vintage wines to sector operators and journalists this week.
Consumer sentiment across borders soured with people getting more reluctant to open their wallets for a premium red as the financial crisis spilled over to other economic sectors.
In 2008, sales of the premium red Nobile di Montepulciano fell to 7 million bottles from 8 million in 2007, while Rosso sales dropped to 2.5 million bottles from 3.2 million, according to data from Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Montepulciano's reds of 2008 -- some of which will be put on sale in a couple of months -- have been assigned a four-star rating by experts, as last year's erratic weather dented quality and drove ratings down from the five-star high which was assigned to the 2007 vintage a year ago.
Stefano Campatelli, director of the consortium which unites makers of the famous Brunello di Montalcino, said sales have been weak so far this year.
"The international crisis weighs. Sales have been slow at the start of this year, even if we are selling the five-star 2004 vintage," Campatelli told Reuters.
Winemakers from nearby Tuscan townships of Montepulciano and Montalcino suffered a blow to their reputation last year after investigations into the authenticity of some of their wines.
They avoided a halt of exports to the United States, a major global wine market, after Italy's agriculture minister and winemakers pledged to tighten quality and labeling controls.
Campatelli said 6.8 million bottles of Brunello sold last year were in line with an average of the past few years and slightly above 2007 sales. Sales to the U.S. market -- which absorbs 25 percent of Brunello output -- held steady, he said.
"Most of the U.S. sales came through in the first few months of 2008, before this story broke out (in April)," he said.
Editing by Paul Casciato