Like a stone thrown into a pond, the ripples of wine fraud impact more than just one collector’s cellar. What happens when a professional wine reviewer can’t tell a fake bottle from a real one by taste? Collectors rely on professional reviews for accuracy, but when these reviews are compromised by fraud, it’s virtually impossible to know what a wine really tastes like. As a result, it becomes easier for frauds to fake more bottles of the same wine in the future. Experts are working on identifying wine fraud in tasting notes, and you can use their tips to improve your chances of buying an authentic bottle.
Wine fraud expert Maureen Downey explains that the most vulnerable wines are older, rare vintages that few collectors have access to in their lifetimes. That’s because only a handful of collectors own these bottles, and those who do usually don’t drink them. Downey says, “In many cases, the ‘standards’ or flavor expectations are based on counterfeits. The damage that has been done is significant, and really tragic when you take in the scope of the history that’s been destroyed.”
Some frauds can fake a bottle’s label down to every last detail, but the wine inside is impossible to accurately fake. Frauds usually pour a lesser-quality vintage inside the bottle, or mix an older wine with a newer wine. The result is an 80-year-old Bordeaux that either tastes worse than expected, or tastes too much like a young wine. Generally, you should be skeptical of reviews for any bottle that’s more than 50 years old, or any of the following commonly-faked bottles:
- 1947 Cheval Blanc
- 1921 Petrus
- 1952 DRC
- Any Bordeaux from 1900, 1928, 1945, or 1961 (historically, the best vintages on record)
A Guide to Identifying Wine Fraud in Tasting Notes
Not all reviews of older bottles are fake or inaccurate. Chances are, at least one published review will have an accurate take on the wine, so your goal should be to seek out that review. In order to identify wine fraud in tasting notes and separate the accurate reviews from the fakes, consider provenance, flaws, and the reviewer’s reputation.
Step One: Check the Provenance
The easiest way to spot a professional reviewer who has been duped is to look into where the reviewer got the bottle. Most professionals aren’t foolish enough to invest in a wine of dubious origin, but when a wine is highly sought-after, it’s common for even the most careful reviewers to overlook provenance issues just to try a legendary wine.
Take the commonly-faked 1947 Cheval Blanc, for instance. Not only is this bottle rare on the market, it’s also unclear exactly how many bottles were even produced. In 1947, the estate sold off barrels of unbottled wine in bulk to merchants, letting merchants bottle the wine in whatever format they saw fit. This makes it easy for wine frauds to counterfeit this vintage because the 1947 has countless labels, and no one can easily prove provenance. As a result, I have seen many 1947 Cheval Blanc reviewers ignore provenance entirely. They might agree to taste a Cheval Blanc with a label they’ve never seen before, or one that was stored in the cellar of a collector who bought it from an unnamed merchant 20 years ago.
Even with difficult bottles like the 1947, it’s still possible to have a provenance standard. Reviewer Mike Steinberger tried what appears to be an authentic bottle of this wine in 2008. He was able to find a bottle owned by Fred Mayer, who bought an entire barrel directly from the Cheval Blanc estate when it was first released. The bottles never left Mayer’s cellar, so Steinberger could reasonably assume its provenance. Only rely on reviewers who have high standards for provenance, and who don’t let their excitement over the wine get in the way of their due diligence.
Step Two: Consider the Vintage’s Flaws
You can also use common sense to identify wine fraud in tasting notes. First, look at what the winemakers themselves had to say about the wine’s quality, and whether it has any notorious flaws or quirks. With the 1947 Cheval Blanc, the flaws were heavy residual sugar and high alcohol content, so any reviews that don’t mention these qualities should be suspect. Generally, if a vintage’s weather should have produced a dry wine, be wary of reviewers who say the wine was especially sweet. I recommend reading vintage notes and weather reports for the region as a whole, and comparing those notes to any reviews you find. Sometimes, it helps to make an apples to apples comparison with a verified wine made in the same year from a nearby terroir.
Step Three: Remember That Anyone Can Be a Victim
Finally, you should never assume that a reviewer tried an authentic bottle simply because the reviewer is famous or renowned in the field. The most experienced of critics is still capable of being fooled by a fake bottle. The most effective method for identifying wine fraud in tasting notes is to read as many reviews as you can, and look for differences.
Downey explains that there are “standard” notes for certain vintages, and that these notes can influence critics over time–think about this as being a wine ‘meme’–a descriptor that catches on and sticks to reviews of the wine. Just because 10 reviewers made a similar comment about a flavor or aroma in a wine doesn’t necessarily mean that they each tried an authentic bottle. Instead, look at whether a tasting note makes sense in the context of the vintage and what you know about the producer. Be suspicious of a 50-year-old wine that supposedly has excellent ullage and tastes like a wine half its age, even if 20 critics agree. The key is to treat every bottle with healthy suspicion until it’s proven to be authentic, and to never take a critic’s review as gospel.
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Image by Jamain (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons