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VERONA, Italy (Reuters) - Italy's top winemakers are joining forces with the country's luxury goods elite as the world's second-biggest wine producer tries to give itself an edge in the battle for U.S. and emerging market customers amid falling consumption at home.
Sales of Italian wine were flat at 12 billion euros ($16 billion) last year and recession at home, as the country drives through austerity measures to tackle a sovereign debt crisis, means the industry is becoming increasingly reliant on exports.
Italy is already the world's top wine exporter by volume and number two only to France by value. It saw wine exports climb 13 percent to 4.4 billion euros in 2011, when 2.4 billion liters, or about 55 percent of total sales volume, was sold abroad.
But as competition from long-term rival France and relative newcomers Australia, South America and South Africa heats up on the international stage, top Italian producers are seeking to stand out by pairing with fashion and design brands.
"As soon as you say 'Prada and brunello', 'Ferrari or Maserati and brunello', it makes a very vital association, especially for consumers around the world that might not know the differences in the wine," said Cristina Mariani-May, co-CEO of Banfi, makers of the full-body brunello red.
Happy to promote Italy's image as a source of all types of quality goods, members of Italy's luxury industry body Altagamma have agreed to accompany their shows and other high-profile events with Italian wines.
"Italian wines have become extraordinarily excellent," Santo Versace, brother of fashion designer Donatella Versace and chairman of Altagamma told Reuters at the pre-opening event for Vinitaly, a major wine trade fair which runs in northern Italy from March 25 to March 28.
"It is clear that fashion is more eye-catching, better known around the world. Wherever we go, we bring along our Italian wines and make them known," Versace said.
Altagamma has commissioned a photo exhibition on top brand Italian products, including wines, which will start a global roadshow in Shanghai this summer.
With sales volumes abroad exceeding domestic consumption since 2010, Italy's wine industry is set to become increasingly focused on foreign markets like the United States, Russia and China, following the tracks of many other Italian manufacturing sectors, ranging from fashion to metals production.
"The future belongs to export," Lucio Mastroberardino, chairman of the Italian wine industry body Unione Italiana Vini (UIV) told Reuters on Sunday at Vinitaly.
"The United States, North America will remain the biggest market for Italian wine for a long time. Exports to China, India show big percentage growth but volumes are still very small. People are just discovering wine there," Mastroberardino said.
Asia can become the biggest export market for Italian wine in the future as incomes there grow and people get more willing to spend money on a bottle of high-quality wine as well as on a luxury car or products of top fashion brands, winemakers said.
"All great brands, from autos to fashion, are already selling more in China than in the United States," said Lamberto Frescobaldi, vice president of Marchesi De' Frescobaldi, the family-owned winemaker with a centuries-long history.
This year, the growth of Italian wine exports is likely to match or even exceed last year's pace with the United States, Russia and China being the main drivers, Lamberto Vallarino Gancia, chairman of the Italian trade body Federvini, forecast.
"What distinguishes us is that alongside top wines such as barolo and brunello which are the main drivers of export sales, we have a great variety of high quality wines in all price segments," Mastroberardino said.
The U.S. market, the biggest wine market in the world, has largely recovered from the 2008-2009 economic crisis and sales of Italian wine rose 16 percent there in 2011, winemakers said.
"Through the entire crisis, the volume of wine (sales) continued to increase, but the price point shifted. Some of the higher-end wines were hurt, some of the lower-end wines were helped," Thomas Matthews, executive editor of Wine Spectator magazine, told Reuters.
"As Italy spans the gamut we have wines that have succeeded even during the recession," Matthews said.
Italy has the biggest slice of the U.S. wine market with an approximate 30-percent share, according to industry data. About a third of Italian wine exports are sold in the United States.
Wine in the middle price range, with price tags of $40-50 a bottle were hit hardest during the crisis, while top shelf wines were supported by demand from collectors who snapped fine wines regardless of economic blues, Matthews said.
Banfi saw sales in the U.S. market rise 17 percent last year, where its brunello is sold on average at $58 a bottle, Mariani-May said.
Reporting by Svetlana Kovalyova; Editing by Mark Potter