Fake fine wines

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When the FBI arrests someone for wine fraud, you know the crime has moved into the mainstream. Rumours about the young wine enthusiast apparently called Rudy Kurniawan (he used several aliases) had been flying around the US wine community for some time, but it still came as a shock when, in early March, his house in southern California was raided. He was arrested and photographs of his counterfeiting equipment (including wads of labels of Châteaux Pétrus, Lafleur and Lafite) were circulated.

What, I wondered, would be the effects of the obvious prevalence of fakes on how fine wine sellers and buyers go about their business? As I asked many of the most obvious players for their reactions, one related bombshell hit Bordeaux last week. A year from now, with the 2012 vintage, first-growth Château Latour is to stop selling its wine en primeur. In future, its luxurious wines will be sold only direct from the château, with increasing concerns about provenance being a significant factor in this decision.

Another development is under way at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy. Its wines are imported exclusively into the UK by Corney & Barrow, which is also the exclusive UK importer of Bordeaux’s answer to DRC, Château Pétrus. For some years now C&B has been offering a discreet authentication service for those who have doubts about a bottle of Pétrus. It is free, but those taking advantage of it agree in advance that any contentious bottle will be confiscated. So far only a tiny minority of the 100 to 150 bottles inspected have proved fake, but, says C&B managing director, Adam Brett-Smith, “I suspect this will change.”

Very soon, Aubert de Villaine, co-owner of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, expects to be able to offer a similar service. The details are not yet finalised but he is confident that the château’s own archives have archetypes of all its bottlings from 1990, as well as for many wines bottled between 1989 and 1953, when the current labels were introduced. But, de Villaine stresses, “it is very clear that there are often different, sometimes very different, versions of the label for the same wine, so you can’t take differences in colour or size of lettering as the only proof of whether a bottle is authentic or not.”

And for consumers, or at least those who can afford DRC, the best news is that de Villaine is at last instituting a proper traceability system – which should be relatively easy, since all DRC labels are individually numbered. There is no such obvious numbering on the labels of Château Pétrus, but a subtler verification system for each bottle was instituted in the mid-1990s and other top bordeaux have followed suit.

The policy of the biggest London fine wine trader, Farr Vintners, is to steer clear of vintages older than 1982. The same is true at Bordeaux Index. “If we cannot genuinely trace the bottle right the way back we avoid it. Better safe than sorry,” says managing director Gary Boom, who expresses surprise that “the auction scene sails on, blissfully unaware”.

The real mystery, of course, is how some traders, merchants and auction houses seem to have almost endless supplies of the most sought-after combinations of producers and vintages. As London fine wine trader Patrick Wilkinson puts it: “It always seems surprising to us that we so seldom come across these wines and yet other less-than-blue-chip companies seem to come up with them time and time again.”

The expression “blue chip” kept recurring in my discussions, so I have given my own very personal (and doubtless incomplete) list of those UK merchants and traders from whom I would be happy to buy rarities. Although I respect Sotheby’s wine department’s scrupulousness in particular, I have not included auction houses as I have reservations about how some lots may be sourced. As Simon Staples, Berry Bros’s fine wine sales director, says: “I am constantly being harangued by [the chairman] Simon Berry about why haven’t we got any old stuff on the list, but even with a vintage as recent as 1996, I wouldn’t buy it unless I knew exactly where it had been.”

He, for one, would like to see a logbook system put in place. “We need a central database for any wine worth more than £1,000 a case – and even if your wine is cheaper than that, if you wanted to protect your brand, you could get in to the system anyway. [If] organised by the Union des Grands Crus [Bordeaux merchants’ association], it would be so easy to do.”

Linden Wilkie of The Fine Wine Experience in Hong Kong (a location where, I would argue, particular diligence is required on the part of the buyer of mature fine wine) wants merchants and auction houses to provide much more information in print about provenance. All are agreed that, as in the fine art market, provenance is becoming more important by the day.

Paulo Pong of Hong Kong’s Altaya Wines claims that “there are times when we pay to open bottles to taste before we purchase”. Pong also mentioned the custom, now sanctioned, of cutting the capsule to check the markings on the cork, as did fine and rare specialist David Boobbyer of UK-based Reid Wines. Boobbyer adds that fine wine’s “original wooden cases are like furniture – they have so many markings that give away provenance. Also, the bottles have to smell right; a bottle of old wine has a certain aroma.”

Altaya may be highly respected in Hong Kong but is a mere 10 years old. Older wine merchants such as K&L of San Francisco, Paulson Rare Wine of southern Germany and the most established fine wine merchants in the UK have the great advantage of being able to source most of their older wines from their customers to whom they originally sold en primeur.

When Patrick Bernard set up Millésima, one of the few Bordeaux negociant-based retail operations, he made it a rule not to buy from fellow merchants and to be able to claim that his stock had been in just two cellars: his own and that of the producer. Buyer beware indeed.

Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com

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