British drinkers bought £246 million ($520 million) worth of New Zealand wines in the year to May 15, an increase of 35 per cent, market research reveals.

New Zealand was one of the few "new world" countries to post big gains, as European wines staged a comeback against the blockbusters from Australia and America, according to AC Nielsen figures.

Helped by its grassy sauvignon blancs, New Zealand added £64 million of sales to reach £246 million.

The other strong performer among the newer wine-growing nations was Chile, which put on £87 million of sales to £464 million.

New world superpowers Australia and the US, which have dominated the UK trade with a winning formula of big brands, bold flavours and low prices, fared less well.

Australian wine sales edged up only £7 million to £1.1 billion, meaning its share shrank by 4 per cent to 21.2 per cent. The US fared even worse, slipping by £23 million to £764 million, shedding 5.3 million bottles and 6 per cent of its market share.

The figures mark a shift for British drinkers, who bought an extra 20 million bottles of chablis, chianti and rioja and other styles from the leading "old world" countries - after a decade of falling sales.

Growth has been particularly strong for Spain and Italy, both up 10 per cent, a combined £96 million, during the last half of 2009 and first half of 2010, according to AC Nielsen's figures.

They show that France lost 2 per cent of its sales during the period.

A range of factors are behind the revival of interest in Europe's vineyards, say experts, including a greater interest in provenance and authenticity and a trend for buying wines to accompany home-cooked meals during the downturn.

Changes in exchange rates - the Australian dollar is high and the euro relatively low - have also made European wine more affordable.

Julian Dyer, senior wine buyer for Sainsbury's, said: "We are seeing a stronger growth in Italian and French wines, rather than most new world countries, and that's a complete reversal of the trends we've seen for the last 10 years.

"Partly that's due to particular products and vintages but also because there's a resurgence of interest in the old-fashioned, classic wines."

Retailers were concentrating on making old world wines easy to buy with labelling explaining the grapes used and the resulting flavour.

Simon Field, a fine-wine expert at the London merchant Berry Brothers, said that while the likes of Jacob's Creek, Blossom Hill and Gallo remained popular with British drinkers, old world winemakers had been able to borrow some of the new world's techniques such as stainless steel vats, to enhance consistency, without losing the complexity and elegance of the fruit from old vines.

"I think fundamentally the move has been against the fruit-bomb style."

- INDEPENDENT