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Caution is Best When it Comes to Old Wines

L-R: Capsule glued to fake 1945 Petrus; bottles of 1949 Musigny have labels falsely aged with dirt, plus modern capsules with recycle symbols; 1953 Petrus label and capsule conditions do not match
© Maureen Downey | L-R: Capsule glued to fake 1945 Petrus; bottles of 1949 Musigny have labels falsely aged with dirt, plus modern capsules with recycle symbols; 1953 Petrus label and capsule conditions do not match
Maureen Downey suggests ways to avoid becoming the victim of wine fraud.

After more than a decade of it being a taboo subject, in recent months the issue of wine fraud has become a hot topic. While this is great, it has also created a need for those with questionable bottles of wine to try and dump them on unsuspecting buyers before the public can get educated.

This can easily be avoided by simply paying attention and asking some key questions. That said, buyers should also be aware of information being disseminated by people who lack the necessary expertise, or who have deceitful motivations.

In general, it is important the bottle looks appropriate for its age, that it matches the production standards of the producer and time period, and that all aspects of the bottle, capsule, cork, label and glass look as though they were aged together. It is very difficult to know all the individual production nuances throughout the years, but there are some characteristics that even the non-expert can notice.  The following is a very short list of characteristics to keep in mind when looking at old and rare wines to purchase.

Label & Vintage Tag

Is the paper correct? If the typical paper from a producer is cream and matt with a watermark, and you are looking at a bright shiny white paper label, it might be a problem. Try to look for other examples. If there is a discrepancy, ask the vendor why.

Many fakes are made by using the correct paper, but printing the labels on a computer or photocopy machine. These may display fuzzy characteristics, or obvious pixellation. Does the print look as though it was ink pressed, or does it look like a reproduction. If so, why is that? Ask!

Paper oxidizes at certain rates. If the label is allegedly 60 years old, it should not look as though it was printed three years ago. First ask if it is perhaps a recent release – but if you do, the merchant should have paperwork to support this and the price could be much higher.

Glue

Old labels often display evidence of glue staining. There is also a certain method of glue application that is used by each house. There are many wines that I have rejected over time for having the wrong type of glue application for a particular vintage or producer. Notice this in the wines you love, and ask if you detect an anomaly.

Capsule

The material of the capsule, the age of the capsule and the condition of the capsule should all be consistent with the alleged age and origin of the bottle, and the condition of the label. A 1945 Vogue Musigny should not have a modern, aluminum capsule with a recycle symbol on it. Likewise, a 1961 Latour magnum should not have a new aluminum capsule with modern art on it.

If the label has lots of damp staining (or even mold) and looks like as though it has gone through quite a lot in its life, the capsule should not look brand new.  If the label and the capsule do not look like they have spent their lives together, that is a huge red flag. Ask why that is, and press for an answer. Finally: capsules should never be glued onto the bottle.

L-R: Items seized by Kurniawan investigators included fake labels, capsules, and old labels steamed off bottles for reuse
© U.S. District Court | L-R: Items seized by Kurniawan investigators included fake labels, capsules, and old labels steamed off bottles for reuse

Cork

Corks are a huge indication of fraud. Blank corks, corks with the wrong branding, and corks that are too new and fresh for the old age of a wine are all cause for alarm.

Another common method of forgery is placing a label for a better vintage on the bottle of a lesser vintage. Ask lots of questions about corks, and familiarize yourself with the standards of your favorite wines. Insist on verification of cork brands and do not simply believe wild tales.

In one set of emailed tasting notes, it was said that a particular old wine was correct with blank corks. When I read that a few years ago, I was flabbergasted. I brought it to the attention of several of my colleagues who were equally stunned that such misinformation would be disseminated. Now that we can strongly point at Rudy Kurniawan as the source of the wine, it makes much more sense.

Glass 

The glass of the bottle should be appropriate for its age. While it is true that during the war years, glass sources were scarce and some production standards were relaxed, by 1961 the war was well and truly over and the Bordelaise were no longer scraping to get glass.

Be mindful in the other direction: you should not have a 1900 first growth in a bottle that was clearly mass manufactured – a production method that came about far later. Study the production of the glass.  Look at the punt and notice if you see the mass manufacture of the modern era, or smooth and deep punts from hand blowing of the past. The period of production of the glass should match the age of the wine.

Overview

In general, if the label looks too new, it possibly is. In the past decade, the bottles that Rudy Kurniawan (allegedly) made were notorious for being in a condition that was too good to be true. In fact, his fakes have tainted a whole generation of buyers who have unrealistic expectations for bottles with age.

An aged bottle may be in excellent condition, but more likely than not, even with excellent storage there will be oxidation of the label and possibly capsule, and the cork will not look fresh and youthful with no staining if it has been stored on its side for the last 20–30+ years.

Also, the ullage should not be perfect with a wine that is several decades old. Old wines should look old. And with over a decade, a wine should be throwing sediment. I cannot believe how many ancient wines I have seen in the past 12 years with almost no sediment.  

In closing, be skeptical of outlandish tales. It may be that your merchant will tell you he knows better than the producer (it has happened!) and that his bottle, despite being different from production standards, is really authentic. In the end, caution is best. Walk away from a deal that seems too good to be true, because it probably is. Walk away from the tall tales and the bottles that are questionable. You may have to pay a little more for the real thing, and from good provenance, but I think it is well worth it.

Maureen Downey is the owner of San Francisco-based Chai Consulting, a firm which advises collectors of fine wine. She is an expert on wine fraud. The views expressed in this article are her own and do not necessarily represent those of Wine-Searcher.

Related stories:

Old and Rare Wines For the Masses

Grand Jury Indicts the Man Known as "Dr Conti"

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