Can you spot the imposter?

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As a rule, one only rarely hears the F word being used in polite wine trade circles. Even then it is only ever mentioned in sotto voce tones. So when Serena Sutcliffe MW, Sotheby’s international wine director, deliberately employed it in her very public presentation at the Wine Invest Seminar, held at Trinity House in February, it caused a tangible frisson among the assembled audience.

Sutcliffe is one of the very few senior wine trade figures who has openly and consistently discussed the unpalatable problem of fake or fraudulent fine wine. Yet she remains fiercely unrepentant about bringing the subject to people’s attention. Firstly, because she asserts that the incidence of counterfeit wines coming on to the market has increased alarmingly in recent months. And secondly because she believes that the issue isn’t being sufficiently addressed by enough of her fine wine colleagues.

The problem almost invariably occurs at the very top end of the trophy wine market where forgers can make huge profits by trading upon people’s inability to spot what’s genuine from what’s not. “It is far more widespread than people realise,” says Sutcliffe, adding that it was not uncommon for her to turn down $1m worth of wine that isn’t “correct”.

Yet this isn’t a new phenomenon and there have been a number of peaks (or troughs) of counterfeiting activity. The first real incidence of fraud began during the fine wine boom of the mid 1990s. This was followed by another serious outbreak in 1999. At the time, Sutcliffe told Decanter magazine that, “Mouton Rothschild 1945 with no provenance whatsoever is appearing as if it grew on trees. Certainly, much more has been sold than was ever made. It just doesn’t add up. In my view, fraud of this kind is widespread, international and highly organised.”

Now, as the fine wine market has moved into overdrive once more with strong worldwide demand and record prices, Sutcliffe believes another rise in the level of fake wines has materialised. “There are a lot of very wealthy people, particularly in the newer markets of Asia and America, who are being targeted because they are not used to old wines and have no idea they are drinking fakes,” she says. “The vast majority of counterfeits are drunk with enormous pleasure. Indeed, people often comment on how youthful an ancient wine seems.”

The American wine critic Robert Parker is also on record as saying that he has come across a worrying amount of fake wines. “I think it is more serious than people want to let on,” he has pointed out.

In the last few years, several scams have been uncovered by the authorities, including fakes of Le Pin, Sassicaia, Grange and a number of cult Californians. One wine trade insider has even suggested that up to 5 per cent of the secondary market for fine wine could now be accounted for by fakes.

In response, a number of leading châteaux have been incorporating a number of anti-counterfeit technologies to the packaging of their high-value assets to try and prevent fraud. Le Pin prints its labels on banknote paper, while Château Petrus’ labels carry a random pattern of lines that are only visible under an ultraviolet scanner. Other estates are also using a range of measures to beat the fraudsters including embossing, watermarks and numbering systems.

However, older wines were not subject to these more rigorous measures. Not only that but châteaux record-keeping before and after the war was lax to say the least, particularly with regard to the bottling of large-format wines, which remain the fraudsters’ favourites. Vintages of 1900 Margaux, 1945 Mouton, 1947 Lafleur, 1961 Petrus and 1982 Le Pin are some of the usual targets as these remarkably rare bottles continue to fetch astonishingly high prices. Only last month, a double magnum of 1865 Lafite was sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $111,000.

While some of the counterfeits are crude and amateurish, others are incredibly sophisticated and convincing. “As a professional you know what to look out for but as an amateur it’s very difficult to tell unless the bottle or label has been badly done,” says Stephen Williams of the Antique Wine Company, which specialises in sourcing and selling fine and rare vintages to private collectors.

Wines that have been traded several times over and have missing links in the ownership trail are more liable to be counterfeited. Conversely, wines that have been cellared at the château since bottling have rock-solid provenance and will command a powerful premium.

In 2003, Christie’s auctioned a number of vintages of Château Latour, all of which had been lying at the estate’s cellars since birth. The 1961, for instance, fetched £34,098 – over twice its high estimate and more than three times the usual saleroom price. Similarly, cases of the 1928, 1929 and 1959 also set new world records. In fact, across the board, prices were up from between 50 per cent to 300 per cent on normal levels. The connection between provenance and price was unambiguous.

Christie’s Anthony Hanson says these wines should continue to retain their premium because each one came with a “passport” proving its origin and history. “Each bottle has a back label recording that it came direct from the cellar at this time. There is also a code and a laser mark to add further proof of identity.”

“With the current levels of fraud, there’s no question that provenance is now the name of the game in the ultrafine wine market,” says Sutcliffe. Her advice to collectors and investors is “only to deal with the most scrupulous suppliers who will trace and check the wine’s entire history and not just its most recent owner.” Otherwise, you could end up paying a fortune for something worth a whole lot less.

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