The new black bottle for the 2012 Angelus, embossed with 21.7-carat gold words and the Saint-Émilion château’s iconic bell symbol, looks like it would be pretty hard to fake. Fusing the gold onto the glass was a complex process requiring two firings at 600°C and 500°C.
But most wineries charging big bucks for their wines use less-dramatic techniques to reassure wine lovers they’re getting what they paid for. (The Angelus fancy bottle is a one-off to celebrate the year the château was promoted to Premier Grand Cru Classe A.)
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Security companies who’ve spent decades devising protections for pharmaceuticals and Gucci handbags are wooing the wine industry with overt and covert high-tech solutions that go way beyond early anti-fraud efforts. In 1984, for example, Château d’Yquem started incorporating a special watermark its label and, in the 1990s, Penfolds began adding a laser-etched identification on bottles of Grange.
Here’s a short list of ways wineries are now combating fakery.
With sophisticated desktop publishing, replicating simple wine labels has become very easy. Harlan Estate included complex anti-counterfeit elements in its label from the first vintage, 1990. “The label is printed with an intaglio technique on proprietary paper that has a special ultraviolet ‘signature’,” company president Don Weaver said. The printing is done by a security printing firm, the kind that produces stock certificates and postage stamps. The almost-impossible-to-reproduce label image is an engraving sourced from the archives of a banknote company that once printed U.S. currency.
By 2004, even that didn’t seem enough. Harlan added a sequential serial number and a randomly generated number tied together with an RFID chip so the bottle can be authenticated on the Harlan website.
In 2007, Colgin Cellars was one of the first wineries to use Kodak’s Traceless System, an invisible marker that’s added to printing ink.
“Only a handheld Kodak scanner can detect its presence,” explained Paul Roberts, the winery’s COO. Colgin’s labels also incorporate subtle color-shifting tags. Look closely at the color inside the “o” in “Colgin” on several labels and you’ll notice that the hue is different, depending on the wine. For IX Estate Vineyard it’s purple; Tychson Hill’s is reddish; IX Estate Syrah’s has a pewter tone.
Colgin’s gold and red capsule has a notch that matches one in the ring of glass at the top of the bottle, to make it hard to replace after the bottle has been opened.
Tamperproof capsule seals
The simplest way to counterfeit a wine is filling an empty bottle of a very pricy wine with a cheap wine, corking it up, and reselling for the price of the expensive one. No faking of the label required, but you’d still have to replace the capsule that fits over the top of the cork and the bottle’s neck.
Prooftag’s BubbleTag capsule seal aims to prevent that kind of fake. Each strip features a square of translucent polymer containing tiny bubbles generated in a unique random pattern and a linking 13-character alphanumeric identification code and a QR or 2G code. The strip is applied partly on the glass and partly on the capsule at the château. It’s damaged when you try to remove it or open the bottle.
Bordeaux’s Château Palmer has used BubbleTag on its bottles from the 2009 vintage as well as on all older vintages released from the château. CEO Thomas Duroux explained: “To determine if your bottle is authentic, you enter the code online on Palmer’s website, or by scanning the QR Code with your smartphone.” He says they picked that technology because it’s widely used: Margaux, Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Smith-Haut-Lafitte and all the properties owned by Count Stephan von Neipperg in Bordeaux and Domaine des Comtes Lafon and Domaine Ponsot in Burgundy are among its adherents.
Advanced Track and Trace provides a similar sticker, used on officially ranked Crus Bourgeois du Médoc wines since the 2010 vintage.
Holograms and encrypted microtext
Credit cards feature unique holograms with several levels of security, and many wineries now add them to their labels. U.K.-based De La Rue Holographics designed one for ONDOV, a government trade association formed to authenticate Romanian wines and protect them against poor quality counterfeit imports. Château d’Issan’s labels include both a hologram and a microtext code hidden in the label design and visible only under magnification, which allows the wine to be traced to the merchant who purchased it for resale.
When I stopped by tiny Château Le Pin in April 2013 to sample the 2012 vintage from the barrel, owner Jacques Thienpont was showing off their new NFC security tag, developed by Belgian company Selinko. The tag is behind the label and contains a tamperproof, encrypted digital certificate with unique information about the bottle. Buyers can check that the wine is authentic by scanning with an NFC (near field communications)-enabled smartphone.
NFC chips are the next evolution of the RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip. Opus One has inserted an NFC chip manufactured by Florida-based iProof company since 2008, CEO David Pearson said. But they also use a special security ink placed on the capsule.
Now NFC technology is being applied to capsule seals. At VinExpo Hong Kong in May, Belgium’s Selinko and Inside Secure unveiled CapSeal. The NFC chip connected to an antenna inserted in the neck of the bottle just above the cork that deactivates when removing the capsule. Scanning with a mobile app tells you whether that’s happened.
Will these methods foil the criminals indefinitely? That’s hard to say. Holograms are quickly copied in China. Ditto specially designed bottles. And one big challenge for wineries will be keeping up with the latest technology. Large-scale DNA wine profiling may be next.