by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, April 2 (Xinhua) -- Italy has officially dethroned France as the world's leading producer of wine, according to statistics from the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV). Italian wine experts say the best may be yet to come for the surging Italian wine sector.
The statistics show that Italy produced 48.9 million hectoliters of wine last year, compared to a little over 47.4 million for France. Producing around 20 percent of the world's total wine production each, the neighboring countries remain well ahead of third-place Spain, which produced a little less than 37.1 million hectoliters.
According to OIV, French wine remains the most expensive in the world by a wide margin -- on average, French wine exports cost 5.10 euro (5.60 U.S. dollars) per liter compared to 1.20 euro (1.30 U.S. dollars) per liter for Italian wine -- and that helped limit sales with much of the world still in the grips of an economic slowdown.
Additionally, domestic French wine consumption is falling dramatically: from about 100 liters per year per person in 1960, to a little more than 40 liters per capita today. Italian domestic consumption is more or less holding steady at around 40 liters per person.
Domenico Bosco, head of the viticulture sector for Coldiretti, the Italian agricultural industry group, added that Italy benefitted from nearly ideal conditions in 2015, while production dropped in some parts of France.
"Last year, most of Italy had almost perfect conditions both for high quality wines and for high levels of production," Bosco said in an interview.
But things could still get better for Italian wine, according to Bosco and other experts. Italian wines remain underrepresented in many foreign markets, including China, showing there is room for growth in exports.
Bosco said the Italian government is working on trade agreements that aim to open up new doors for Italian wines. Some changes in agricultural rules are also giving Italian wine producers more autonomy, which could help improve quality.
Lorenzo Tersi, a leading commercial wine consultant, told Xinhua that the Italy's new crown as the world's top wine producer could herald positive developments for the wine sector, but the country should do more to promote its products.
Tersi noted that Italy produces wine from more than 1,200 types of grapes compared to 200 in France. He said there are 300,000 separate wine producers in the country, with 2 million different wine types on sale.
"I think Italy can do more to promote the country's tremendous diversity in wine," Tersi said.
Bosco agreed, "Italy doesn't make many predictable, generic wines; they reflect the variety of grapes and the diversity of the territory."
Tersi said Italy should follow the lead of the Italian fashion industry, which has long produced high quality products but became a world leader only after selling an image that helped set Italian fashion designers apart.
"Italy needs to use the beauty of the country, the history, the culture, the traditions to help sell its wine," Tersi said. "It cannot just be the wine that's in the bottle."
This is not the first time Italy rose to the top of the wine charts in recent years: a strong harvest also pushed Italy to the top in 2011. A year later, France was back in first.