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'The wine trade is changing': Is technology the solution to the great wine fraud?

The wine industry has suffered from fakes and deception for centuries, but producers are looking to use technology to change that

Illustration of a spilt glass of wine

Illustration: Lou Kiss

Mulled wine season is upon us, and you’ll find few complainants that the warming glühwein at one of the many Christmas markets is not the truest reflection of the grape and the place it was grown. But tinkering with fermented grape juice has been the source of battles and riots over the course of history.  

Deception has coursed the underbelly of the wine world for millennia. In 1852 a select committee in London’s House of Commons lamented the state of play: “The wine trade itself is much altered from the respectable character it used to bear; persons of inferior moral temperament have entered into it and tricks are played, which in former times would not have been countenanced. The trade is getting a bad name.” 

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The committee had clearly not done their history homework: meddling with wine is as old as the vine. Wine has been spiced and seasoned since Roman times: herbs were commonly added including fennel, pepper or cumin to pep up a wine. The end goal was to make wine more palatable rather than deliberately deceive the end consumer. The drinker was often grateful to the maker for masking the taste of the wine, which would quickly turn sour without any of the technologies that modern winemakers take for granted.

In the first century AD, Pliny the Elder recorded the many forms of adulteration taking place: from herbs and seawater to honey and pounded marble, the list of additives was extensive and, they weren’t all conducive to healthy living, particularly a lead-riddled syrupy mixture which could poison the regular drinker, leading to many health problems and sometimes death.  

It is only very recently that wine has been able to survive long journeys without becoming undrinkable or age for than a year or two before turning to vinegar. Today, we are lucky that most wines – even those piled high and sold cheap in the next aisle to your box of cereal or packet of loo rolls – are generally free of faults and taste pretty good. Before high-tech wineries came along with laboratories and computerised tanks, and temperature-controlled shipping containers carried wines across vast oceans, quality was patchy.

Giving wine a makeover often made it more attractive to the final customer. Depending on your point of view, you could call it amelioration or adulteration but without the historic addition of brandy to fortify the wines of Portugal’s Douro Valley, we wouldn’t have Port. And then where would Stilton be at Christmas?  

In the early 20th century, a slew of regulations was created to combat the fakes and the fraudsters, providing a guarantee that the contents of the bottle of Port or Champagne you bought was the genuine article, but they proved not to be as effective as the grape crusaders had hoped. For example, in 1985, Austria’s wine community was crippled by the “antifreeze” wine scandal. An inventive chemist had discovered that a wine’s body and flavour could be enhanced by adding a tiny amount of diethylene glycol to the blend. Overnight, light bodied, insipid whites were transformed into fuller bodied, silky sweet wines destined for the bottom shelves of the German wine market.

Driven across the border by the tankerload with false paperwork to be bottled in Germany and sold to the unsuspecting public, the crime only come to light when some of the less-savvy producers using diethylene glycol declared the expense on their tax returns. News of the dirty deed met a frosty reception: exports slumped, and some countries went as far as banning all Austrian wine imports.  

While cases of bogus blending and dodgy dealing continue to emerge, duping wealthy wine collectors is now the wine fraud of choice. An elite group of fine wines are now considered an investment and the emergence of blue-chip wines has made it ripe for the picking. Single bottles of rare Burgundy or mature Bordeaux can exchange hands for thousands of pounds, and it was only a matter of time before opportunists took their chances.

Many convincing fakes have been sold by reputable auction houses in the past 40 years to unsuspecting collectors, but the wine trade is slowly changing in a bid to protect its reputation, which was in tatters when the first-ever wine fraudster was convicted in 2013. The case of Rudy Kurniawan blended convincing conman with millionaire wine lovers and gave the everyman a juicy glimpse into the elitist world of fine wine – and its downfall.  

Duped collectors may want to wish wine fraud away, but most auction houses and wine producers have plucked their head out of the sand and realised that the hard questions need to be asked. The wine industry has gone from denying to defying fraudsters, employing the services of wine detectives and attending wine authentication training to learn how to spot the fakes. Technology could be a solution to the problems fine wine producers face but as wine bottles get smarter, counterfeiters will find new ways to deceive the drinker. After all, they’ve been doing it for millennia. 

Vintage Crime: A Short History of Wine Fraud by Rebecca Gibb is out now (£25, University of California Press) 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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