How To Spot Fake Wine

A fascinating dark art, wine fraud has offered plenty of true-crime excitement & gotcha! Moments over the years. Meet the world’s greatest ever faker, some nasty chemicals and a few ways to protect yourself.

If you want to know the tell-tale signs that a wine is not the genuine article, your go-to guy for hot tips would be Rudy “Dr Conti” Kurniawan. You might have a tough time meeting up with him, though. Rudy, an Indonesian of Chinese extraction (born Zhen Wang Huang) was arrested in March 2012 and has been residing at the Taft Correctional Institute in California since January 2015. His incredible career spanned the previous decade and made him the undisputed world heavyweight champion of wine fakery. In 2016, an estimated $550 million worth of Rudy’s fakes were still on the market. As the imposter-bottles are collectibles rather than drinkers, they are almost certainly still circulating.

As the copy-cats get cleaned up in other areas, factories that used to produce fake Nike are forced to change to Nuke or Neki or something similarly awkward. The same is happening for household names in wine.

The documentary “Sour Grapes” (2016) is an intriguing insight into the years when Rudy was active in the market. Sadly, Dr Conti himself declined to offer any participation—since his arrest he’s refused to speak to the press. But we know that Dr Conti’s stock-in-trade was very old Burgundy from landmark years—particularly Romanée-Conti (hence the nickname). Unless you’re a keen collector of historic vintages, or a wildly extravagant bon vivant, you’re unlikely to encounter any of his fine works of fraud.

What you’re more likely to encounter in low-to-mid-market fake wine are coloring agents including elderberry juice, spice notes enhanced with actual cinnamon, and more dangerous additives as well. Louis De Surrel is the CEO of Loyal Wines in Hong Kong. In a China-specific investigation into fake wine by Forbes Magazine last year, he fingered lead acetate, methanol and diethylene glycol as harmful chemicals used by fakers to increase the sweetness of their inferior wines.

What are the tell-tale signs that a wine might be fake? Start with the obvious: the front and back labels. As mentioned in last month’s article, the label will have the producer’s name in a traceable form that should lead you to the website or corporate information of the company which takes responsibility for the brand and the product. If you google the name (always at the bottom of the front label for French wine) and nothing matches, it’s almost certainly fake.

Even more brazen are spelling mistakes—either in the winemaker’s native language or in English. If you’re not au fait with French spellings but you like French wine, for example, it’s worth checking out the very few important words you should expect to see on any real bottle. I bought a bottle of fake Château Lafite Rothschild 2005 in Hunan for 65 RMB and used it in tastings and training sessions to demonstrate the importance of this. On the back, at the very bottom of the label, it should have said “contient des sulfites” (contains sulfites). Not “contient des sulfiites” which is what was actually printed on it. Once you find a spelling mistake like this, there’s no doubt that you’re dealing with a fake. That outwardly-convincing 2005 Lafite fake was brought down by one tiny spelling error. According to Maureen Downey of Chai Consulting (private wine collection management), an estimated 70% of Lafite sold in China is fake.

As the copy-cats get cleaned up in other industries, factories that used to produce fake Nike are forced to change to Nuke or Neki or something similarly awkward. The same is happening for household names in wine—look out for Panfaids instead of Penfolds, or even Woof Brass instead of Wolf Blass.

In an exposé for Wine Business International, Downey recalled finding a recycling logo on the capsule of a 1959 Vogüé Musigny. Schoolboy howler, fraudsters. That thing was never a thing until 1970. If you keep your wits about you, and buy from trusted vendors (broadly, that includes big western-branded supermarkets but not hole-in-the-wall convenience stores) you should be able to spot a fake because there’s always something that gives it away.

Just ask Dr Conti… when he gets out of jail in January 2021.

Alec Forsyth started selling wine in France over twenty years ago, and is a proud holder of the Wines and Spirits Educations Trust (WSET) Higher Certificate in Wines and Spirits. He has been the head buyer for a local Dongguan wine merchant since 2011, and has been selling imported wines to the Dongguan cognoscenti for several years.