Bruno Paumard, the cellar master at a vineyard in China, cannot stop laughing while describing a bottle of supposedly French wine a friend gave him two years ago.
It’s white wine, with a label proclaiming it is from the vineyards of Romanee-Conti, the bottle bearing the logo that is on bottles of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and declares its origin as Montpellier in southern France.
Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, better known for highly prized and highly priced vintages from France’s Burgundy region, makes only a tiny amount of white wine, labelled Montrachet. It has nothing to do with the equally prestigious Lafite, which is from the Bordeaux region, and neither brand is produced anywhere near Montpellier.
“It’s the most magnificent example of a hijacked brand of wine I’ve ever seen,” says Paumard, who works with Chateau Hansen in China’s Inner Mongolia region. “It doesn’t get better than that.”
Liquor stores, restaurants and supermarkets in China, the world’s most populous nation and fifth-largest wine consumer, wage a constant battle against fake wines. The amount of knock-offs on the market may increase as Beijing investigates wine imports from the EU, threatening anti-dumping tariffs or import curbs.
It announced the investigation last week after the EU slapped anti-dumping duties on Chinese solar panels.
“More expensive wine is okay, I just don’t want any fakes,” said Helen Nie, a Beijing housewife sharing a bottle of the Italian house white at a restaurant with a friend.
“If the cost goes up I’d still buy wine, though some people wouldn’t – the price makes a difference. But the quality is important; it’s a health question.”
EU wine exports to China reached 257.3 million litres in 2012 for a value of nearly $1 billion (R10bn), more than a ten-fold increase since 2006 as rapidly increasing wealth transforms lives and tastes in the fastest growing major economy.
More than half of the 2012 total – 139.5 million litres – came from France.
Nobody knows how much of the market is cornered by fakes and copycats, says Jim Boyce, who follows China’s wine industry on his blog, grapewallofchina.com.
“Things that are faked tend to be things that are very popular,” Boyce said.
And wine, especially expensive wine, is popular in China, sometimes more for bragging rights than taste. Given the high margins and the demand, the counterfeiters tend to focus on European fine wines.
The first step for anyone counterfeiting wine is to find or manufacture a bottle that is close to the original.
“People will also use real bottles with something else inside, or make labels that are spelled differently,” says Cheng Qianrui, a wine editor for lifestyle website Daily Vitamin. “If you know wines, you can tell, but not a lot of Chinese do.”
Elite wine makers are trying to fight back, sometimes by smashing bottles after tastings, to prevent their being refilled.
Anti-counterfeiting measures by major international spirits brands, which also fall victim to fakes in China, include bottle buy-back programmes, tamper-proof caps and covert tagging of bottles. But such measures are less common with wine brands, according to an executive at an international beverage company in China.
Domaines Barons de Rothschild has been putting tamper-proof tags on bottles of Chateau Lafite and its second label, Les Carruades de Lafite, since the 2009 vintage.
But the producer has been protecting its elite bottles since 1996, company president Christophe Salin says, with four other identification techniques that he will not reveal.
“If you show me a bottle of Lafite, I can instantly tell you when it was bottled, a lot of things,” he says. “To counterfeit it is not easy.” – Reuters