Whether bought as an investment or collected for enjoyment, wine is a frequently traded commodity and one that many people are passionate about. It's also a highly valuable commodity, which makes fake wine a serious problem.
But how common is wine fraud? Unfortunately, it may be far more common than you had realized.
In 2018, authorities in France discovered that 66 million fraudulent bottles of Côtes du Rhône had been sold, while around 4.6 million bottles of Spanish rose wine were traded under French labels in the same year. In October 2020, 4,200 fake bottles of Bolgheri Sassicaia were seized by police in Italy, demonstrating that the problem is still a serious one across the world.
So how do you detect a fake wine? And how do you keep yourself safe from fraudulent wines and spirits? There are a number of different techniques you can use.
Just like with any other fraudulent product, it's tempting to believe that we will be able to spot a fake wine on sight. However, this is often not the case, and, in fact, fake wine products can be very difficult to spot.
But, very difficult does not mean impossible. There will certainly be tell-tale signs that help you to identify fakes and differentiate them from genuine products. Some of these signs will be visible to the naked eye, while others may require additional tools or techniques – such as magnification or exposure to UV light – before they can be seen.
Oxidation of the wine's label will occur over time, but it should happen at a uniform rate, affecting all areas of the label equally. You should not see evidence of oxidation in one area of the label and not another. This may be a sign that tampering has taken place.
If modern coating agents and glues have been used in the production and application of the label, these will show up under ultra-violet light.
The construction of the glass itself may be another sign of a fake wine bottle. Older, hand-blown glass bottles are less stable than our modern, factory-made pieces. They will wobble a little when placed upon a flat surface. This may not be present in a fake variety.
Pixels and colored spots are a giveaway, as these are the result of modern printing techniques. Older fine wine labels will feature the outline of a plate printing press when the label is magnified.
Branding should be clearly visible on the cork itself, and it should match up with the information regarding the wine. Look for any signs that the cork has been tampered with, as this could be a sign that the wine is not what it is purported to be.
You can expect there to be some sedimentation in the bottle of wine, particularly if this wine has aged for decades. Fraudsters know this, and they may try to artificially add a sediment effect. When you examine the bottle, you should be able to see sediment that moves when you tilt the bottle back and forth. If the sediment does not move, it may not be genuine.
Check the label very carefully when you examine the bottle of wine. We've already looked at how construction materials and other errors can indicate a fraudulent bottle of wine, but there are other indicators. The facts included in the text on the bottle's label may not square with the wine's purported age or origin. These signs are not easy to identify, but they can be useful in identifying a fake wine label.
Snooping around and checking for clues like this might make you feel like you are in a detective movie, but it certainly does not guarantee that you will be able to detect a real or fake bottle of wine. In fact, the highly technical, highly forensic aspect of the process makes it very difficult for anyone who is not already an expert in wine or the history of enology to verify their purchases.
There are a few other problems with these methods:
Wine producers and distributors are resorting to increasingly sophisticated methods in a bid to deter fraudsters and counterfeiters. These methods include the following.
A taggant is a tamper-proof addition to wine bottles, designed to stop counterfeiters in their tracks. In many cases, these are highly visible, overt taggants designed to be easily seen. However, wine producers are now deploying invisible taggants that require specialist equipment to identify and verify.
Wine bottles may also be marked with synthetic DNA markers. These markers cannot be seen with the naked eye and require specialist equipment to verify. However, the complex nature of this technique makes it very difficult for fraudsters to duplicate or counterfeit it.
There are a number of problems associated with these methods. These include:
By adopting more high-tech and more sophisticated methods, the wine industry is certainly moving in the right direction. However, such methods do not need to be exclusive. Instead, they can be wholly inclusive, protecting the rights and needs of everyone in the industry – from producers to consumers and everyone in between.
Digital solutions such as engage™ allow wine producers and distributors to register their products, detailing key characteristics and logging the serial numbers of authentic bottles in their collections. This information is then stored digitally and is accessible to anyone who needs to verify the product status quickly and efficiently. engage™ also works alongside trusted security printers, and we offer a full service package to our wines and spirits clients, including invisible taggants, which can reach a 'banknote-grade' level of sophistication to eliminate counterfeiting attempts.
Access is granted securely via the engage™ app. Anyone with a smartphone device can access this information, putting the power squarely back in the hands of the consumer. This kind of democratization of the security process is vital if we are to prevent fraudsters from gaining a foothold in the industry.