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Rare and expensive wines, such as First Growth Bordeaux, are often the target of counterfeiters.

Wine fraud is a form of fraud in which wines are sold to a customer illicitly, usually having the customer spend more money than the product is worth, or causing sickness due to harmful chemicals being mixed into the wine. As wine is technically defined as the product of fermented grape juice, the term "wine fraud" can be used to describe the adulteration of wine by substances that are not related to grapes. This can referring to the use of coloring agents such as elderberry juice, or flavorings such as cinnamon and ginger. While some varieties of wine can naturally have deep, dark color and flavor notes of spices due to the presence of various phenolic compounds found in the skin of the grapes, the use of additives in order to artificially create these characteristics is generally frowned upon in the wine world. In recent years, much attention has been focused on the label fraud, where counterfeit labels from cult wines and other rare and expensive wines are affixed to bottles of less expensive wine and then resold.[1] Wine fraud can involve less expensive wines if they are sold in large volumes. Wine Spectator noted that some experts suspect that as much as 5% of the wine sold in secondary markets could be counterfeit.[2]



During the classical period, wine was so often adulterated and counterfeited that Pliny the Elder complained that not even the nobility could be assured that their wine was genuine.

For as long as wine has been made, wine has been manipulated, adulterated and counterfeited. In ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder complained about the abundance of fraudulent Roman wine which was so great that even the nobility could not be assured that the wine they were pouring on their table was genuine. For the poor and middle class of Rome, local bar establishments seemed to have an unlimited supply of the prestigious Falernian wine for unusually low prices.[1]

During the Middle Ages, wines from questionable origins where often passed off as wines from more prestigious regions. In London, local authorities established laws for tavern owners prohibiting French, Spanish and German wines from being cellared together so as to prevent the potential for mixing the wines or falsely representing them to the consumer. If a producer or merchant was found selling fraudulent or "corrupt wine", they were forced to drink all of it. In medieval Germany, the penalty for selling fraudulent wine ranged from branding to beating to death by hanging.[1]

During the Age of Enlightenment, advancements in science ushered in a new occupation of "wine doctors" who could fashion examples of wines from obscure items and chemicals. Writers like Joseph Addison wrote of this "fraternity of chymical operators (sic)" who would use apples to make Champagne and sloe to make Bordeaux and then sell these wines fraudulently on the market. Following the Phylloxera epidemic, when true wine was scarce, there was an uptick in the occurrence of wine fraud. Some merchants would take dried raisins grown from other species of grapevines and make wine that they passed off as being from a more prestigious provenance such as the more well known wines from France or Italy.[1]

In the early 19th century, several European writers wrote about the risk and prevalence of wine fraud. In 1820, German chemist Friedrich Accum noted that wine was one of the commodities most at risk for being fraudulently manipulated and misrepresented. In 1833, the British wine writer Cyrus Redding echoed the alarm over the unchecked operations of these "wine doctors". Eventually the concern over wine fraud grew enough that provisions against the adulteration and misrepresentation of wine was included in British Parliament's Adulteration of Food and Drink Act 1860. Several European government also enacted legislation defining what exactly constitutes "wine" so as to distinguish authentic winemaking from the workings of these wine counterfeiters. The French government first legally defined wine as the product of fermented grape juice in 1889, followed by the German government in 1892 (later expanded in 1909) and the Italian government in 1904.[1]

Fraud of a different nature occurred during prohibition in the United States, when wine production was illegal, as grape merchants would sell "bricks" of grape concentrate across the United States along with a packet of dried yeast.[1] The bricks would come with a helpful warning label cautioning people not to mix the contents of the brick, yeast, water and sugar in a pot and then seal such pot for seven days, or else "an illegal alcoholic beverage will result".[3]


Practices that were once considered fraudulent

The practice of adding grape spirits to wine was once considered manipulative and fraudulent but today is accepted practice for the production of all fortified wines, like Port.

Over the years, winemaking techniques have evolved. The first, primitive "natural wine" or "authentic wine" was most likely the result of crushed grapes being forgotten while stored in a container. The process of allowing wild yeast found on the surface of the grape conduct fermentation in an uncontrolled environment creates a very crude style of wine that may not be palatable to a lot of people. Hence the development of various techniques and practices designed to improve the quality of the wine but which could be viewed as "manipulating" or "adulterating" the wine from its natural or "authentic state". At various points in history, these technique may be considered too much manipulation, more than what a consumer would likely expect, and thusly labeled as "fraud". However as these techniques became more common place in the wine industry, an air of acceptability followed and they eventually became just another tool in the winemaker's tool box to help craft quality wine.[4]

Most techniques of manipulation arose from need. Early wine had many wine faults that caused a wine to spoil quickly. Classical writings from the Greeks and Romans detailed very recipes that could cure "sick wines". These include adding various items like milk, ground mustard, ashes, nettles and lead. Another example of early "manipulation" that became accepted, common practice was the process of adding grape spirit to wine made in the Douro region of Portugal. This process of fortification gave the wine chemical stability for long sea voyages and, when added during the fermentation process, left the wine with a balance of residual sugar and alcohol content that gave the wine a unique taste. This style of wine became very popular on the world's wine market as now there is no other accepted way of making Port with "manipulating" it with the addition of brandy during the fermentation process.[1]

Other winemaking techniques that have been at various times considered "fraudulent" or being too manipulative of the wine include chaptalization, fermenting and aging in oak barrels, using oak chips, stirring lees, racking, clarification and filtration, reverse osmosis, cold maceration, the use of cultured instead of wild yeast, cryo-extraction, micro-oxygenation and the addition of enzymes, anti-oxidant agents, acids or other sugars that may be used to "balance" the wine.[5]

Adding water to wine

The codeword "Jesus units", used to describe the winemaking practice of adding water to wine, is taken from the biblical story of the miracle at the Marriage at Cana.

While some winemaking techniques have gone through phases of being considered fraudulent and are now generally accepted practices, a few practices have done the opposite. One of the most controversial is add water to wine in a technique known today as humidification. Master of wine Jancis Robinson calls the act of using water to "stretch out" or dilute wine "possibly the oldest form of wine fraud in the book."[6] Water has a long history of being used to dilute wine in order to make it more palatable. The ancient Greeks thought it was "barbaric" to drink undiluted wine.[1] They further believed that undiluted wine was unhealthy and that the Spartan king Cleomenes I was once driven insane after drinking wine that was not diluted with water. Today, few people dilute their personal drinking wine for consumption like the Greeks but the use of water during the wine making process is still prevalent.[7]

Today water is used to help balance extremely ripe grapes that would have a concentration of sugars and phenolic compounds. Modern winemaking has begun to promote higher levels of ripeness and longer "hang time" on the vine before harvesting. This increased emphasis on ripeness has had the counter effect of producing wines with higher alcohol levels (often over 15%). In many countries, such high alcohol levels qualify the wines for higher levels of duties and taxes. The practice of adding water to grape must can dilute the wine to such a degree that the overall alcohol by volume drops to below the percentage threshold for these higher taxes.[6] The deliberate act of diluting a wine with a water in order to pay less duties and taxes is illegal in several countries.[1]

The gray area between accepted practice and fraud is when water is added to the winemaking process as a means of "quality preservation". Water is often used during the winemaking process to help pump grapes through equipments and to "rehydrate" the grapes that have begun to shrivel from the extended hang time. This rehydration is used to help balance the wine and to hopefully prevent the wine from having "dried fruit" flavors that may not be palatable to the consumer. In the United States, the California Wine Institute has stipulated guidelines that allows for the addition of a certain amount of water to compensate for the natural water lost in the vineyard due to dehydration. The need for the use of water has been argued by its proponents as a necessary means to preventing stuck fermentations. Despite being allowed limited legal use, the practice of adding water to wine is one that is still shrouded in some degree of controversy and a practice that few winemakers willingly confess to doing.[6] A "code word" for the practice in the wine industry is adding "Jesus units" in a play on words about the Biblical story of the miracle performed at the Marriage at Cana where Jesus turned water into wine.[8] [9][10]

Label fraud

Several European countries developed appellation systems, with their own unique labels and seals, to try and combat label fraud that misrepresented a wine's true origins.

One form of fraud involves affixing counterfeit labels of expensive wines to bottles of less expensive wine. This practice became particularly prominent following the devastation of the phylloxera epidemic in the 19th century when the supply of expensive premium wine was scared. At first, the label fraud mostly consisted of taking a wine from a region of lesser acclaim (such as Southwest France or Calabria in Italy and then labeling the wine as if it came from more prestigious regions such as Bordeaux or Tuscany. To counter this type of fraud, governments developed extensive appellation systems and Protected Designation of Origin or (PDOs) that attempted to regulate wines labeled as coming from particular wine regions. Early attempts to protect the name of a wine region lead to government declaration on the boundaries and wine permitted to carry the names of Chianti, Oporto and Tokaji. Today most major European wine producing countries have some appellation system of protected origins. The most well systems include the Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) used in France, the Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) used in Italy, the Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) used in Portugal, and the Denominación de Origen (DO) system used in Spain. Producers who are registered in each appellation must abide by the appellation's rules, including exact percentage of grapes (often 100%) that must come from that region. Producers who fraudulently use grapes outside the region they are proclaiming on their wine labels can be caught by the appellation's authorities.[1]

As it became more difficult to fraudulently label wines with the wrong provenance, label fraud soon evolved to the pilfering of the identities of wine estates themselves. Merchants would take the bottles of lesser priced wines and label them with the names of the finest classified Bordeaux estates or Grand crus of Burgundy.[1] Label fraud, to be done well, requires bottles, corks, and packaging to be similarly manipulated.[11] Reporter Pierre-Marie Doutrelant "disclosed that many famous Champagne houses, when short on stock, bought bottled but unlabeled wine from cooperatives or one of the big private-label producers in the region, then sold it as their own".[12] A high-profile instance of alleged wine fraud was disclosed in early 2007, when it was reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had opened an investigation into the counterfeiting of old and rare vintages.[13][14]

Examples of label fraud

A common form of label fraud seen today is the counterfeiting of labels from prestigious wine estate, such as this Bordeaux wine estate, and attaching them to bottles of either an inferior vintage of the wine or a completely different wine all together.

One of the most famous, alleged, purveyor label fraud was the wine collector Hardy Rodenstock. In the 1980, Rodenstock would host a series of high-profile wine tasting events of old and rare wines from his collection including many from the 18th and 19th century. He invited to this tastings dignitaries, celebrities and internationally acclaimed wine writers and critics such as Jancis Robinson, Robert M. Parker, Jr. and Michael Broadbent who at the time was a director at the London auction house Christie's and considered one of the world's foremost authorities on rare wine. At one such tasting, Rodenstock produced 125 vintages of Château d'Yquem, including a very rare bottle from the 1784 vintage. In addition to holding these extravagant tastings, Rodenstock also sold many bottles from his collection at auction houses, which regularly inspect and research wines for authenticity. One such lot that Rodenstock sold was the rare "Jefferson bottles", reportedly rare Bordeaux wines bought by the American president, Thomas Jefferson. American business Bill Koch bought some of these Jefferson which were later determined to be fake. This revelation cast a net of suspicion on the authenticity of all the rare bottles that Rodenstock served at his tastings and sold at auctions.[15][16]

In 2002, bottles of the weaker 1991 vintage of Château Lafite Rothschild were relabeled and sold as the acclaimed 1982 vintage in China. In 2000, Italian authorities uncovered a warehouse with nearly twenty thousand bottles of fake "Super Tuscan" 1995 Sassicaia and arrested a number of people including the group's salesperson, who was selling the fake wine out of the back of a Peugeot hatchback.[2]

Preventive actions

Federal governments and individual producers have taken many efforts in order to curb the prevalence of wine fraud. One of the earliest such preventive measures was the founding of the Service de la Répression des Fraudes by the French government to detect and stamp out fraud among France's AOC wines.[1] Some major producers are taking actions to prevent fraud of future vintages including marking bottles with engraved serial numbers on the glass and taking more control of the distribution process of their wines. However, for older vintages, the threat of fraud persists.[2]

Wine blending

The rumors that grapes other than Sangiovese (pictured) was being used in the production of Brunello di Montalcino triggered a investigation into the potential wine fraud.

Some practices of manipulations and adulteration have gone through stages of being considered fraudulent and later accepted as common practice. One of these is the practice of blending other grape varieties in order to add a characteristic that is lacking in the original wine. This most often occurred in the case of a wine lacking color. A wine with a deep dark color is often associated with being of a higher quality so blending in a darker color variety (or a teinturier) into a lighter wine could enhance the marketability of the wine.Today the practice of blending grape varieties together is commonly accepted (such as blending Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) except where such blending is against the regulation of a particular appellation (such as the controversy over the Brunellopoli scandal in Brunello di Montalcino).[1]

The gray area comes when inferior wine is being blended in with more expensive, higher quality wine in order to increase the total quantity of wine available to be sold at higher prices. This is a process known as "stretching" or "cutting in" the wine. During the 18th century, Bordeaux wine producers would often import wine from Spain, Rhone or the Languedoc to blend and stretch out their wine which they sold as to the English as claret. While this practice would be frowned upon today by Bordeaux authorities, the French wine writer André Julien noted that some merchants believed this practice was necessary in order for the claret to be agreeable with English tastes-a practice he describes as "travail à l'anglaise".[1]

Examples of illegal blending

Reporter Doutrelant reported the comments of "a government inspector on the illegal use of sugar to boost the alcoholic content of Beaujolais-Villages: 'If the law had been enforced in 1973 and 1974, at least a thousand producers would have put out of business'".[12] The same writer explained how growers "planted Mourvèdre and Syrah, two low-yield grapes that give the wine finesse, strictly for the benefit of the government inspectors. Then, when the inspectors left, they grafted cheap, high-yield vines, Grenache and Carignan, back onto the vines".[12]

In March 2008, allegations were made against producers of Brunello di Montalcino that there were illegally blended other types of grape varieties into wine stipulated to be of 100% Sangiovese, allegedly to inflate production and increase profit, in a scandal termed "Brunellopoli".[17]

Many Burgundy wine shippers have been found guilty of blending inexpensive wine with red Burgundies and exporting them at exorbitant prices. The Vins Georges Duboeuf company was found guilty in 2005 of illegally mixing low-grade wine with fine vintages. The court found that both "fraud and attempted fraud concerning the origin and quality of wines" had been committed.

Hazardous materials

A dangerous form of wine fraud is the use of hazardous materials in the wine making. Ancient Romans use to blend lead into their wine in order to add sweetness.

One of the most dangerous forms of wine fraud is when producer use hazardous materials such as lead, diethylene glycol and menthol to wine in order to increase sweetness and alcohol content, respectively. Some chemicals maybe used to mask other wine faults and unpleasant aroma. Government authorities, such as the European Union and the American Food and Drug Administration, across the globe have set up laws and regulations of acceptable chemicals that can be added to wine in order to avoid some of the scandals that have plagued certain wine producing countries in the 20th century.[1]

In 1985, diethylene glycol appeared to have been added as an adulterant by some Austrian producers of white wines to make them sweeter and upgrade the dry wines to sweet wines; production of sweet wines is expensive and addition of sugar is easy to detect. Fortunately, the amount added was not high enough to be toxic except at impossibly high (for most people) levels of consumption (one would have needed to ingest about 28 bottles per day for approximately two weeks in order to suffer fatal effects). Twenty-three people died in 1986 because a fraudulent winemaker in Italy blended toxic methanol (wood alcohol) into his low-alcohol wine to increase its alcohol content.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 4 & 26-27 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906
  2. ^ a b c M. Frank, Wine Spectator ( January 31-February 28, 2007). "Counterfeit bottles multiply as global demand for collectible wine surges", p.14
  3. ^ K. MacNeil The Wine Bible pg 630-631 Workman Publishing 2001 ISBN 1563054345
  4. ^ D. Bird Understanding Wine Technology pgs 1-7, 223-233 DBQA Publishing 2005 ISBN 1891267914
  5. ^ J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 424-425 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906
  6. ^ a b c J. Robinson "Adding water to wine" Purple Pages, December 31st 2002
  7. ^ J. Robinson (ed) "The Oxford Companion to Wine" Third Edition pg 762 Oxford University Press 2006 ISBN 0198609906
  8. ^ J. Googe Too much of a good thing" Wine Business International April 6th, 2007
  9. ^ B. Hewitt "Sere Grapes" The New York Times April 20th, 2008
  10. ^ The Uncorker "Why It Matters Glossary #19, Accessed: December 8th, 2009
  11. ^ Wine-Searcher "Counterfeits and Other Problems -"
  12. ^ a b c Prial, Frank. J, Decantations. NY: St. Martin's Griffin, 2001. Pp. 23-25.
  13. ^ Wilke, John, The Wall Street Journal (March 6, 2007). "U.S. Investigates Counterfeiting of Rare Wines"
  14. ^ McCoy, Elin, (March 20, 2007). "Trophy Status and History Trump Taste in Fuss Over Old Wines"
  15. ^ P. Keefe The Jefferson Bottles, The New Yorker pages 1-10, September 3, 2007
  16. ^, March 17, 2007: Flushing out wine fraud and fakes
  17. ^ (March 28, 2008). "Antinori, Argiano, and Frescobaldi named in “Brunellopoli” Brunello Scandal".  


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