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By Sybille de La Hamaide
PARIS, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Sales of more expensive wines and spirits are expected to increase in coming years because of growing demand for better quality vintages from affluent drinkers in China and the United States, experts predicted on Tuesday.
By 2016 global wine consumption will reach 34.5 billion bottles, up 5.3 percent from 2012 and driven by a 40 percent jump in sales in China and a 12 percent rise in the United States, according to a study presented at the French wine trade show Vinexpo.
"The world is drinking more but above all is drinking better," Vinexpo Director General Robert Beynat told reporters.
"With champagne and the great wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy the French are well placed, although the Italians are improving their quality every day," he said.
The forecast increase is nearly double the growth in global wine sales recorded between 2007 and 2011, when the world was grappling with the global economic crisis.
Sales of bottles at over $10 each are set to gain nearly 70 percent by 2016 in China as prosperity changes people's drinking habits, and 55 percent in the United States, still by far the world's top consumer of fine wines, Vinexpo said.
An increasing number of Chinese wine lovers have purchased French chateaux in the past years, keen to ship the wine home and turn their new properties into tourist resorts.
China is expected to become the second-largest wine consumer by value by 2016, up from No. 3 today. A surge in China's own output of wine from its fledgling industry has made it the No. 6 world producer.
Australian bottled wine exports to China surged 15 percent in 2012, as a sales push targeting the country's wealthy drinkers helped make China the top overseas market for Australian wines priced at more than $7.90 a litre.
France is by far the world's largest wine producer and exporter by value, followed by Italy and Spain. But in terms of volumes shipped, Italy leads, followed by Spain and France.
"The Italians have a potent advantage which we don't have, there are pizzerias everywhere in the world where they of course serve Italian wine," Beynat said.
Global spirits consumption will continue to increase through 2016, although at a slower pace. Consumption will be buoyed by a change in habits in Asia where drinkers are switching from cheap local spirits to more expensive whisky and vodka.
"The star will remain vodka. Investments by some large companies prove it and it will continue to develop. It's a product relatively easy to drink and to produce," Beynat said.
Overall, global spirits sales will reach $365 billion in 2016, 23 percent up on 2012.