China's seemingly unquenchable thirst for wine has ousted America as Bordeaux's number one client outside Europe, latest figures showed Friday.

With overall exports down a large 23 percent in 2009, vintners are now looking to the East to drain their cellars.

"China has become our first client outside the European Union," said Alain Vironneau, president of the CIVB, Bordeaux's wine trade body, in a press conference, hailing both Hong Kong and China as "dynamic".

China's buying power comes at a particularly opportune moment as France's leading wine region struggles to survive the economic crisis.

"Several hundreds of vineyards are in peril due to insufficient cash", said Vironneau, emphasizing that the wine trade was made up of small businesses, many outstanding performers, but lacking support from France's banking sector.

"The crisis that the wine sector is going through is tied directly to the economic crisis."

Despite a slight increase in export sales over the last three months, Vironneau said 2009 had been "catastrophic" for the region, and any recent sales activity fell short of making up for a year of losses.

Bordeaux exported 206 million bottles in 2009, generating 1.29 billion euros. This represents a 14 percent drop in volume, and a 23 percent decrease in value.

The hardest hit markets were some of Bordeaux's most trusted - the United States, Britain and Belgium, which dropped 44 percent, 33 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

While the United States still outpaces China in terms of value at 139 million euros, it slipped to the number five position in volume, surpassed by China, where consumers are rapidly integrating wine into their lifestyle.

In 2009, sales to China increased by 40 percent to 74 million euros, with volume increasing by an impressive 97 percent. Sales to Hong Kong, sparked by the wine boom following the elimination of import duties on wine in 2008, increased by 46 percent to 109 million euros, with a 24 percent increase in volume.

"The wine boom in China started three years ago and grows each year at an impressive rate," wine merchant Jean Pierre Rousseau, Managing Director of Diva, told AFP. "Before that it was Lafite, Lafite, Lafite. Now they buy petits chateaux, crus bourgeois and grands crus in volume."

The Chinese market is expanding so rapidly that everyone is getting in on the act.

"One of our good clients in China is the Volvo importer for the country," said Rousseau. "He's done a very good job with wine."