The hunt for counterfeit fine wines

The best-known wine fraudster of recent years is Rudy Kurniawan, who faked fine wines from renowned winemakers and sold them at exorbitant prices in American auction houses. He was caught out when he tried to sell an historic Burgundy. Unluckily for him, the was not produced in that particular year. Kurniawan's story was told in the documentary film 'Sour Grapes'.

How do forgers operate? In fact, they make everything; false bottles with false labels and, of course, false wine. Often, they will put inferior wine in genuine bottles with real labels, real corks and real capsules. The fraudsters search for original, empty wine bottles. A simple internet search shows there's a lucrative business in empty wine bottles from top domains, with prices ranging from dozens to several hundred euros per (empty) bottle.

The American Fiona Morrison has a lot of experience with counterfeit wines. As a Master of Wine - there are only 370 of them worldwide - she travels around the world tasting wine. Together with her husband and winemaker Jacques Thienpont, Fiona also owns the top wine domain Le Pin in Pomerol. Their wines are all in the high end of the price range. The WineSearcher website calculates the average bottle price as €3,662 euros in 2015, while in 1982 the cost rises to €6,728.

We do a test. On one side of the table is a bottle of "Château Le Pin Bordeaux Appellation Contrôlée", on the other side a bottle with a simpler looking label "Le Pin Pomerol". One of them is fake. "On bottles of Le Pin we never used the word 'château'", Morrison says with a twinkle in her eye. So, the "Château Le Pin" is therefore a fake - but bottles like that do well on the Chinese market.

At the Restaurant

"The story of a fake wine often begins in a prestigious restaurant", Morrison continues. "The sommelier shows you a Le Pin, Lafite, Pétrus or similar high-end bottle. He patiently removes the capsule from the bottle, takes a special corkscrew to remove the cork from the bottle neck intact, gently pours the wine into a carafe and serves the wine. What do you think can happen to that empty bottle, original capsule and cork? Exactly; instead of being thrown in the bottle bank, they end up on the forgery circuit, after which they are circulated containing sub-standard, counterfeit wine.

Some wine domains try to protect their bottles against forgery but there are only a few dozen of them worldwide, Morrison estimates. It is difficult. Since the 2009 harvest, Château Lafite Rothschild, for example, has been using an anti-fraud seal under the capsule - "but by now even these security measures have been beaten by forgers", Morrison admits. "You can copy them with a 3D printer, I saw it happen with my own eyes in China".

Le Pin goes a step further than security tagging. "Legally we can't protect our brand name. It is too generic and simply means 'pine'. That's why we employ the latest technology" says Morrison. Since the 2010 harvest, her domain has been working with chips from the Belgian company Selinko: "Our wine label shows an icon with a chip on it. If you download the Selinko smartphone app and scan the bottle with it, the chip tells you everything about the wine. This gives you information about the authenticity and the technical details of the harvest and the wine-growing process. Moreover, as a winemaker, we can get precise information about where which bottle was scanned. We are very pleased with this".

Selinko, based in Mont-Saint-Guibert, in Brabant, Wallonia, is heavily committed to Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, which has been recognized as one of the most trustworthy. Recently, the company developed InTact together with Amcor, one of the world leaders in wine stoppers. This capsule sends information via NFC technology to the smartphone of whoever scans the bottle.

The renowned Château Pétrus combines various techniques: a QR code, a hologram, an engraved code in the glass of the bottle and a pattern that lights up when the label is viewed under UV light. Of course, this technology only helps with recent vintages. How many fake Le Pins 1982 would be in circulation? We can only guess. "The great winemaker of Pétrus, Jean-Claude Berrouet, once confided to me that there are many more bottles of Pétrus 1947 on the market than were ever made in the château" whispers Fiona.

Pull quote: "The great winemaker of Pétrus, Jean-Claude Berrouet, once confided to me that there are many more bottles of Pétrus 1947 on the market than were ever made in the château"


Morrison emphasizes that it is not only wine producers who have a role to play. "I think it's important that as a consumer you can fully rely on the seller of a bottle of wine. If you knock on the producer's door, you're in the right place - but what about retailers? I sometimes wonder if we should ask them to make a note of to whom they sell which wines but what are the implications for privacy? As a consumer, would I want that? Négociants, importers and also specialized auction houses must do their research extremely thoroughly before selling a bottle of wine".

Sometimes simple tricks work when it comes to guaranteeing the authenticity of a bottle, Morrison concludes. "The Le Pin label is particularly high quality in terms of printing technology but every millésime my husband Jacques also adds a new signature to the label and it's a little bit different every time. It's thanks to this signature we can match the vintages. If a bottle from a top vintage does not bear that year's signature, it has clearly been tampered with. So, keep your eyes open - you'd be better be sober if you buy or open a top wine."

Bottom box text:

'Our auction house invests in researching authenticity'.

"Fake bottles really should not appear at our auctions. We therefore invest heavily in seeking out counterfeits. If we receive old wines, we are particularly strict with them." That's what Aart Schutten, the new boss of Sylvie's Wine Auctions in Antwerp says. He comes from the Dutch banking sector, started trading in top wines as a hobby some 15 years ago and has recently taken over the wine auction house.

Sylvie's has built up a solid reputation in recent years. "Private wine cellars with high-class and investment wines are more extensive in Belgium and Switzerland than many other places but the interest of rich buyers is increasing worldwide. I am well aware that our auction house is a kind of safety net for our clients" says Schutten.

How does Sylvie's combat counterfeiting? Polished bottles, for example, are viewed with suspicion. The auction house has an extensive database of which winery made which wines and in which vintages. Occasionally bottles are brought in that simply shouldn't exist. "A subtle falsification technique you don't see very often, but which we are apprehensive about, is one in which a tiny hole is drilled at the bottom of the bottle and the contents then supplemented with inferior wine", says Schutten. "Then the hole is stopped with resin or polished. If the level of the wine in the bottle rises, it naturally becomes worth more." Schutten says that wineries will also become more aware of the counterfeiting of new bottles.

"For several years now, large houses in Burgundy and Bordeaux have been using technology to protect their bottles. The top Italian from Piedmont and Tuscany - think Conterno, Sassicaia, and Ornellaia - are not really up to speed with this yet, although the Italians do use the same corks and labels more consistently. The top domain Coche-Dury from Burgundy uses a whole range of corks. I appreciate that an end user doesn't understand that." "The fact that France has been fighting the trade in faked fine wines for some time now is due to the speculative aspect of Bordeaux and Burgundy wines. Many bottles from top vintages are hardly ever cracked open but constantly change owners at auctions."

This article was published in: op 27 april 2018 - Foto: Jonas Lampens

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