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SAN MARINO (Reuters Life!) - Tourists flock here for the postage stamps rather than the local reds and its only winery needs a makeover, but the tiny republic of San Marino is boldly pushing ahead to make a name for its wines.
Perched on a hill just a few miles from the turquoise waters of Italy's Adriatic coast, San Marino has cultivated grapevines on its slopes for nearly 2,000 years -- mostly in the shadow of more famous wines produced in nearby regions like Tuscany.
Sammarinese vintners are hoping to change that, setting their sights on higher exports and building a distinctive brand tied to San Marino's curious 1,700-year history of surviving medieval invasions and intrigue to remain independent today.
"Wine should become a symbol of San Marino," said Renzino Gobbi, director of the local consortium of winemakers, waving his arms across an expanse of dusty, green vineyards dotting the landscape of rolling hills. "We have such a long tradition and history of making wine here."
The earliest written records of viticulture in San Marino stem from the 13th century, but Gobbi says the remains of a press and other wine-making objects dating to the 1st century A.D. have also been found by archaeologists.
"Our dream, which is slowly coming to fruition, is to have our wines linked to the country's image and tourism, just like regions like Tuscany or Piemonte boast of their wines," he said.
About 85 percent of the intense, ruby red wines like Brugneto or crispy whites like Biancale produced here are sold within San Marino, but Gobbi says the aim is to bring that level down to 60 percent and boost exports to 40 percent.
Looking beyond the Italian market just outside its unmanned borders, San Marino winemakers -- who produce about 1 million bottles a year -- have begun selling wines in Germany, Japan, the United States, Switzerland and since last year, England.
The bestsellers include the dry, full-bodied Brugneto red wine made from the Sangiovese grape and the Tessano, a delicate red with hints of vanilla and toasted almond.
Among whites, there's the aromatic, dry Biancale; the fruity Roncale made from the local Ribolla grape, and the Caldese, a velvety wine aged in small oak barrels.
The fizzy white Moscato Spumante and the deep golden, sticky-sweet Oro dei Goti dessert wine round out the slate.
"We've taken care to name our wines such that they aren't confused with Italian wines," says Gobbi, uncorking a bottle of the sparkling Riserva Titano white wine named after the mount on which the small state was built.
"We didn't, for example, want to simply name our Brugneto or Tessano a Sangiovese -- we wanted to put our imprint on it."
Still, San Marino has some way to go before its Tessano or Caldese give better-known Italian wines a run for their money.
The only winery to press grapes and store wines for all Sammarinese wine producers is dilapidated, while the economic downturn threatens to put a brake on exports.
But Gobbi argues local vintners are fighting back with a focus on higher quality wines, with many giving up cultivation of cereals or olives to specialize in wine.
That could mean the 130 hectares of San Marino land with neat rows of grapevines could rise to about 200 hectares over the next 10 years, he says.
"We're a small state that's known all over the world -- a state with its own wine," he said. "This is what the future of agriculture in San Marino could be."
Editing by Paul Casciato