Faces furrowed with concentration and biceps bulging, Lorenzo Martire and Giovanni Zorn puffed their way up the narrow streets of this medieval town, rolling the 80kg oak wine barrel ahead of them.

They had trained hard for this moment and it paid off as, for the fifth year running, they took first place in Il Bravio delle Botti the annual wine barrel race in Montepulciano, a Tuscan town famed for its red wine.

Every year, pairs of men roll empty wine barrels from the gates of the old town, perched on top of a hill, up to the main square, running for 1,800 metres (2,000 yards) along the steep narrow streets past cheering residents and tourists.

It's a great holiday! The race, the parade, the feeling of being together. I love being part of it, said Martire, a 35 year old gardener from Florence. He has been coming to Montepulciano for the celebration for 20 years and has won the last five races with Zorn, also a Florentine.

The Il Bravio has its roots in the 14th century and was originally a celebration of the town's patron saint, John the Baptist.

Now it lasts for 10 days with costumed ceremonies, dance parties, street theatre and lavish outdoor dinners and peaks with the wine barrel race on the last Sunday of August.

The festival also gives makers of the renowned Montepulciano wines a chance to promote their product an increasingly important task as pressure builds from cheaper, fashionable New World wines from Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

Wine making and tourism account for about 40 percent of the local economy and provide jobs for many of the 14,200 people living in Montepulciano and nearby villages.

And despite the increasing competition, Montepulciano has held on to traditional clients in Italy, Germany and Switzerland by maintaining its high quality.

It has also won the hearts of wine lovers in new markets, like the United States, Japan and eastern Europe, said Massimo Romeo, chairman of the local wine growers' body, the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

Overall, Italian wine exports accounted for one third of 9 billion euros of wine sales in 2005, agriculture trade federation Coldiretti said.

Romeo said sales of Nobile di Montepulciano rose 17.4 percent to 5.5 million bottles last year and have increased 10 percent in the first six months of 2006.

Our wine represents a tradition, a culture, which the new wines do not have. They do not have a personality, he said.

The oldest reference to the wine of Montepulciano dates back to 789, according to the wine growers' body.

Some local historians say Etruscans who lived in the area more than 2,000 years ago grew grapes similar to the Sangiovese now used to make Montepulciano's two most famous wines Nobile and Rosso.

The Consorzio together with makers of Chianti and Brunello from nearby towns and villages have been getting ready to enter Russia's promising market and China's giant one, Romeo said.

But despite these plans, wine growers are not planning to boost production for fear of compromising on quality.

Some even see traces of this desire to be unique and the best in the origins of Il Bravio.

Historians say the original festivities used to culminate in a horse race which was dropped in the 17th century for reasons of public order. In 1974, the tradition was revived by a local priest, who suggested replacing horses with wine barrels. Some say he did this because he did not want Montepulciano's festival to be a pale copy of the Palio horse race in nearby Siena.

Others say he wanted to honour the wine.

Either way, the wine is honoured and the town's special place in the summer festival calendar is assured.

When you open a bottle of Montepulciano at home, you will remember our town, its palaces and squares, its colours and noises. And of course, Il Bravio, said Romeo.

This enchantment is our added value.