Wine has always been the target of sharp practice. In the 1st century AD, the Roman author Pliny the Elder noted: ‘Not even our nobility ever enjoys wines that are genuine.’ Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, and all that.
Wine fraud is still prevalent today and it’s not just a collectors’ problem, restricted to rare and valuable bottles sold at auction. The most common wine cheat is thought to be using grapes from cheap areas to make wine that is labelled with a more prestigious appellation.
The trade in bulk wine has often been accused of covering up cases of passing-off, with riper grapes from sunnier countries or regions adding stuffing to thin vintages from appellations with more saleable names. In the six months from December 2020 to May 2021, a joint Europol-Interpol operation seized 1.7 million litres of counterfeit drinks, most of it wine and vodka. Last month, it was reported that a winemaker in Spain is accused of a £22 million fraud, allegedly involving selling mislabelled wine into Spanish supermarkets.
My favourite wine scandal (yes, I have one) was the 2011 Jacob’s Creek hoax in which hundreds of counterfeit bottles purporting to be from the wine brand went on sale in the UK. If you knew what to look for they were easy to identify: the perpetrators had misspelt ‘Australia’ as ‘Austrlia’ on the back label.
As a drinker of (mostly) inexpensive wines, which I buy from reputable retailers, I’m fairly relaxed about the chances of spending money on a bottle that might not be what it claims it is. There is far more likelihood I’ll waste money on a wine that is corked, oxidised or just not quite up to it.
Were I shopping elsewhere – China, say, where earlier this year police seized more than 8,000 bottles of counterfeit Penfolds wine (many more are thought to have been sold) – I might have more concerns.
For the producers, merchants, brokers, retailers and agents, whose responsibility it is to guard against large-scale swindles, wine fraud is more of a headache. Diligence, including tasting and testing samples, as well as checking paperwork and maintaining relationships, can help mitigate.
The tech world can also offer tools in the fight-back against fraud. Blockchain, for example, can be deployed to create a digital ledger of each transaction a wine undergoes and every movement it makes. Many of the newer fine-wine platforms are already using blockchain to enhance traceability and assurance of provenance. This technology can also be applied to shipments of cheaper branded wines.
How it pans out remains to be seen but blockchain has attracted some key support, including from Maureen Downey, an authority on wine fraud, and Jeffrey Grosset, a star riesling producer based in Australia’s Clare Valley.
Grosset, whose Polish Hill riesling 2021 sells for around £45 a bottle, co-founded the company Entrust Global, which uses blockchain technology to record every step of a wine’s journey, and bottles are also protected with a tamper-proof seal.
For you, the wine drinker, the best advice is the tried-and-tested method of buying wine from a reputable source.
Running with Bulls Tempranillo 2020, Australia
14%; Tesco, £8 or Co-op, £9
Tempranillo is the star of Rioja in Spain but this bottle shows it can do well in Australia too: sings of blackberries and redcurrant jelly.
Quinta da Pedra Alta Clarete 2020, Portugal
11.5%; The Wine Society, £11.50
A light red made by co-fermenting Portuguese red and white grapes. Fresh with a touch of pleasing astringency.
Fief Guérin Vieilles Vignes 2021, Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu Sur Lie, France
12%; Waitrose, £6.99 down from £8.99 until 27 September
This is lovely – dry and refreshing – as well as being insanely good value.
Read last week's column: The best unusual Italian red wines and where to find them