Some experts estimate that as much as 5% of the fine wine secondary market involves fake wines. From grape juice shipped across borders to acquire a famous region's kudos, to clean-skins labeled with illustrious names and ancient vintages, the full range of trickery occurs on a regular basis.
Over the years, there have been numerous instances of counterfeiting and fraudulent practices, and as the popularity of wine reaches new heights, the challenges facing the industry have only increased. Many irregular practices came into light in 2010, like the infamous Red Bicyclette scandal, fake premium Fitou wines finding their way into the Chinese market and a host of labeling manipulations in China involving top-end Bordeaux. An interesting article appeared in the Financial Times in mid-2009, written by Jancis Robinson, dealing with large-scale counterfeiting of a top Burgundy producer's wines.
There is no substitute for having direct experience of genuine examples. People who handle wines on a daily basis quickly acquire an instinct for spotting counterfeit wines. So keep your old bottles and build up a collection in order to compare them with more recent purchases.
Glass making has changed considerably since the bottling of famous vintages prior to 1982.
These should be consistent with other known examples of the vintage, although there are a few rare examples of chateaux using more than one capsule type for a vintage.
Chateau-bottled wines have the correct vintage and brand printed on the cork. Before 1970, wine was often shipped in casks to wine merchants who bottled the wine themselves (leading to labeling such as 'Belgium bottled', 'Berry Bros bottled', etc. on some old wines).
There was a tradition of recorking wines and refilling the bottle – generally from a recent vintage – where levels were low. Penfolds seems to be the only company still doing this. Serena Sutcliffe (of Sotheby's), for example, is 'against recorking of wines, even if old, as the shock is great and fraud made more easy by the practice'.
For old wines, some label damage is to be expected and perfect condition is a sign of possible fraud and/or storage in too-dry conditions. Wine stored within the correct humidity range can naturally lead to some label staining. It is common for fraudsters to get the labels almost, but not quite, right. Check for spelling errors, font changes, etc.
Wines that have been traded many times, or where there is vagueness about the ownership trail are clearly more open to fraud. At the other end of the market, there are wines that have been cellared at a chateau since bottling. These, rightly, command a premium in the market.
Wines imported into the USA must have a USA strip label on the bottle stating the importer's name. A wine with a USA strip label is virtually impossible to sell outside the USA.
Generally, be wary of wines that look too good for their age, labels that are too perfect, or fill levels that are too high. Take care whom you buy from and avoid any wine merchant who cold-calls you. Examples of fraudulent traders who have worked the European wine market in the past are listed on Jim Budd's site. For further advice please consult Wine Authentication Services LLC which is based in Brookline MA. Bay Country Liquors has a detailed page showing examples of fakes they have been offered in the past.
The plague of the wine trade, and it seems that when real corks are used there is not much than can be done about this problem. Obviously corked wine has aromas of wet cardboard, mushrooms and mould. Corked wine has been in contact with a cork infected with a fungus that produces 1,2,4-trichloroanisole, otherwise known as TCA.
This is wine that has been exposed to too high a temperature, leading to a stewed, prune-like taste. Prior to 1985, less care was taken when shipping wines around the world. If a container without
full temperature control is kept for a few days at a port during high summer, it will ruin any wine inside. As the liquid heats, it expands, pushing the cork out. So never buy a bottle where the top of the cork doesn't sit flush with, or below the level of, the mouth of the bottle.
The small amount of air behind the cork is regarded as one of the mechanisms by which wine develops when in the bottle. However, should the wine come into free contact with oxygen in the air, whether during careless winemaking or due to a faulty cork, rampant oxidation will rapidly ruin the wine.
The smell and/or taste of vinegar indicates that a wine has either been open for too long and/or has been attacked by a bacteria called 'Acetobacter'. Acetobacter reacts with oxygen and this reaction changes the taste of a wine to a vinegary flavor. The fault is described as 'volatile acidity'.
Neither of these is a true fault. Sedimentation within the bottle is a natural occurrence in wines designed to withstand some ageing, and it simply reflects the solid matter settling out of the wine. Be wary of old bottles without sediment.