Wine lovers of the world will be aghast to hear that creating counterfeit bottles of rare vintages to sell for a vast profit has never been easier. This week, a BBC Radio 4 documentary, The Wine Detectives, will delve into the secrets of a practice blighting the fine wine industry.
Counterfeiting is so lucrative that fakes may represent up to a fifth of the fine wine market. A favoured technique of those dealing in this illicit trade is to buy original bottles and corks on the internet, fill them with similar, cheaper substitutes, seal them and sell them on to unsuspecting collectors. The process is tricky, and to get it right, costly, but with some wines fetching tens of thousands of pounds, the appeal, and outlay, makes perfect sense.
Another more complex method is to ‘re-create’ existing wine, through mimicking bottle types, labels and taste, which takes longer but can be done on a larger scale. And, of course, there is the practise of creating vintages that sound plausible but never existed, or ‘unicorns’ as they are known.
Catching rogue stock is becoming a preoccupation of many major wine dealers and the police. Most wine companies now employ ‘wine detectives’ to track down the frauds, and in 2014, Indonesian wine collector Rudy Kurniawan was sentenced to ten years in a California jail for ‘manufacturing’ vintage bottles.
For most collectors, falling foul of a scam is worrying, and if Government moves to have alcohol wrapped in plain packaging progress, it may become even easier in the future. Fortunately, there are ways of protecting yourself and your investments: even to the untrained eye, forgeries and fakes can be picked up.
The first thing is to always check that the wine in question does, in fact, exist. This may seem obvious, but is one of the things Kurniawan was convicted of three years ago; a bottle of Clos Saint-Denis purporting to be from 1945 was found in his possession, when the appellation only started producing in 1982. Wine detective Maureen Downey, meanwhile, told the BBC she had handled more 1945 Romanée-Conti in large bottles than the total quantity ever produced, all the more impressive given it was only sold in 75cl bottles.
The second thing is to check the state of the bottles themselves. Earlier, hand-blown glass won’t be flawless or smooth, and has tell-tale imperfections. As bottles become more modern, other things appear that date them: the presence of indents stating the volume post 1930, for example, or even a ‘recyclable’ mark.
Labels, meanwhile, should demonstrate a wine’s authenticity. They can easily be ‘aged’ with the use of dye or even coffee, so check for overzealous colouring, but what is written on them is equally important. Sometimes fraudsters make mistakes only an expert would spot, such as misplacing the AOC for a particular wine or period. Other times, the mistakes are more simple, such as spelling errors.
Corks, too, can show signs of having been tampered with, highlighting that a bottle has been refilled. Extraction grooves in the sides of the corks are obvious, whilst one should pay attention to corks that have been ink-stained, rather than branded; different regions use different techniques. Lead caps will also give you ample warning that all is not well, as they crease more easily than modern aluminium ones if removed and replaced.
There are advanced techniques for checking the authenticity of vintage wine; glue and paper labels, for example, can be forensically aged. Sadly, the only way you can be completely sure is to do business through reputable dealers. Even so, if a fifth of the market is counterfeit, the odds are that most serious collectors will be scammed at some point.
If you do end up in this situation, however, take heart: your kindly fraudster has, after all, already provided you with the means to forget your misfortune.