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VERONA, Italy (Reuters Life!) - Italy, the world's biggest wine producer, sees the economic crisis as a way to build on the trend to higher-quality, higher-priced wines, the chairman of the Federvini trade group said on Thursday.
Lamberto Vallarino Gancia, whose federation groups 90 percent of Italian producers, told Reuters the downturn was showing that consumers were buying pricier wines and tending to drink them at home rather than at bars or restaurants, where prices are higher by the glass.
"This is a good opportunity for wine in the group above 5 euros ($6.67) a bottle and of quality," he said on the sidelines of the sprawling Vinitaly wine fair. "We are looking at less volume, but more value added. This is a general trend."
Even with the economic recession, Italian wine was benefiting from its image as part of a healthy Mediterranean lifestyle and from a "Made in Italy" cachet, Gancia said.
Wine consumption, at least in Italy, also tends to suffer less in a downturn since it is "a bit countercyclical" and not considered expensive, he said.
"It's obvious that there is not one single consumer. There are a lot of different varieties of consumers with a myriad of tastes in wine. There are opportunities for some wines and not for others, but for now, it's quality."
Italian exports dropped about 7.4 percent by volume last year to 17.2 million hectoliters, their first downturn after years of steady growth, according to the Italian Trade Commission.
However, the value of exports rose 0.8 percent to 3.5 billion euros, underscoring Gancia's view that better wines at higher prices were a long-term trend.
Sparkling wines, especially Prosecco from Italy's northeast, have been a standout for exports in the last few years as Americans in particular look for a bargain alternative to Champagne, according to distributors at the fair.
Sparkling wines exports last year jumped almost 11 percent by value, to 444 million euros.
Gancia, a fifth-generation producer of sparkling Spumanti from Asti in the Piedmont region, said the next big thing for Italian wines could be varietals, or wines made from a single grape rather than a blend.
Italy could turn to highlighting some of its 350 native grapes, just as it has made its indigenous Pinot Grigio an international wine star through varietals, he said.
"It's a good alternative," he said pointing to such grapes as Sicily's Catarrato -- a white grape used in making sweet Marsala wine -- as potential candidates for showcasing in varietals.
Gancia added that European Union guidelines to reduce areas planted in vines also would pare output, nudging producers to higher-quality products. He declined to give forecasts for production or exports this year.
In another sign that vineyards were leaning toward higher-priced product, wine made under the government's certification system for quality and source rose almost 5 percent last year, according to a report by the Ismea agricultural think tank presented at Vinitaly.
Additional reporting by Barbara Cornell, editing by Paul Casciato