By Sybille de La Hamaide
PARIS (Reuters) - The United States became the world's biggest market for wine last year, beating France into second place for the first time as consumption slides in the country long seen as its natural home and Americans develop a greater taste for it.
U.S. consumers bought 29.1 million hectoliters of wine in 2013, a rise of 0.5 percent on 2012, while French consumption fell nearly 7 percent to 28.1 million hectolitres, the International Vine and Wine organization OIV said on Tuesday.
U.S. drinkers are, however, still way behind in terms of consumption per head.
According to per capita figures that date from 2011, the average French person still gets through almost 1.2 bottles a week, about six times more than the average American. Nevertheless, the downward trend in consumption through recent years is fairly dramatic in Europe's wine-drinking heartlands.
"In countries such as France, Italy and Spain, people used to drink a lot of wine, but consumption habits are changing," OIV director general Jean-Marie Aurand said on the sidelines of a news conference in Paris.
"We drink less wine by volume, more quality wine. And there is also competition from other drinks such as beer."
"In the U.S., it is different and they are starting from a lower level per capita, so they have a tendency to consume more and more, notably quality wine," he said.
France, the world's third largest wine producer behind Italy and Spain, saw its consumption per capita fall more than 20 percent between 2002 and 2011 to 46.4 liters per year, he said.
Over the same period U.S. consumers raised their consumption by nearly 17 percent to 9.1 liters per person per year.
The OIV said the sharp fall on the French wine market last year was exaggerated by an adjustment in its statistical data.
WORLD TRADE DROPS BUT PRICES RISE
The Paris-based organization estimated last year's wine consumption in China down 3.8 percent to 16.8 million hectolitres after a rapid growth over the past 10 years, but Aurand played down the fall, saying this was likely due to large stocks built up in the previous years.
Without official Chinese data, OIV calculates consumption by adding estimated output and imports minus small exports.
Overall, world wine consumption last year fell by 1 percent to 239 million hectoliters after four years of near stability.
"The long-awaited recovery that will mark the end of the financial crisis, which began in 2008, is still to take place," Aurand said.
World wine production last year rose 9.4 percent to 279 million hectoliters helped by record output in Spain, Chile, South Africa and New Zealand, the OIV said.
International trade in wine fell 2.2 percent by volume to 98 million hectoliters but higher average prices in 2013 led to a 1.5 percent rise in sales to 25.7 billion euros ($35.4 billion).
French exports shed 3 percent by volume, mainly due to low 2012 output, keeping the country behind Italy and Spain in the ranking of world wine exporters, but it remained the world's top wine exporter in value at 7.8 billion euros ahead of its two main competitors.
"Things should move a different way in 2014 when you look at 2013 output, especially for Spain which has a record harvest," Aurand said.
For 2014, the OIV warned of a likely sharp fall in output in the southern hemisphere due to adverse weather conditions.
Initial estimates pointed to a fall of 20 percent in output in Argentina compared to 2013 and a drop of 10 to 20 percent in Chile after last year's hefty production. Australian production could also fall slightly, the OIV said.
Overall output in the main countries of the southern hemisphere, also including South Africa, Brazil, New Zealand and Uruguay, could fall to between 49 to 53 million hectoliters this year, down 10 percent on 2013, the OIV said.
(Editing by Andrew Callus and David Evans)