US wine shipments overseas leapt last year, according to figures released this week. Trade group the Wine Institute said yesterday that shipments in 2003 rose by 17% to US$643m, the biggest annual increase since 1998.

The group credited the rise to growing consumer demand for Californian wines and the introduction of new products. Last year's weak dollar against the pound and the euro also helped make American-produced goods cheaper for consumers abroad.

Britain was the top export market, generating one-third of the $643m in foreign sales. Exports to Canada rose by 21% to $112.4m. Shipments to Japan slipped, however, by 6% to $76.3m.