Such incidents date back to ancient times. In this case, attempts were made to "improve" the quality of the wine by using illicit additives or by manipulating the wine, such as fraudulent labelling or blending it with inferior wines, in order to pretend a false identity. The most spectacular or extensive wine counterfeits of modern times are described below:
In the 1960s, Italian wines became particularly popular in Germany and milllion hecotliter were introduced. Among them were cheap products of alleged brands like Chianti (in the kitschy, raffia-wrapped wicker bottles), Lambrusco and Valpolicella, which had never seen the respective growing areas. Many were enriched with sugar and water, embellished with cow's blood and the plant mucilage Agar Aagar (from algae), and the fiery shine was created by adding plaster. More than 200 wine forgers were reported, some of whom had used river water and the decoction of rotten figs or bananas to sweeten the wine. The wine law with the DOC system introduced a few years earlier in 1963 had obviously not yet taken effect.
In an interview in 2010 with Josef Pleil, the long-term president of the Austrian Winegrowers' Association, he explained the background to the 1985 glycol scandal (shortened considerably): "The roots of the wine scandal probably lie in the early 1970s. In order to prevent the emigration of many small farmers, each winegrower from the border region was allowed to plant an additional 0.5 hectares per farm. This was intended to prevent the many small farmers from crowding into the Viennese labour market. After only five years, this resulted in an expansion of the vineyard area by around 15,000 hectares and thus in overproduction. At the beginning of the 1980s, however, wine consumption declined throughout Europe. At that time there was a good demand for sweet wines in Germany. Now some "resourceful specialists" tried to meet this demand by simulating high-quality Prädikat wines from simple cheap table wines by adding diethylene glycol and offering them at the lowest prices. This worked quite well in the beginning.
In December 1984 a man with a German accent, unknown until today, turned up at the Federal Agricultural and Chemical Institute in Vienna set up a bottle of a light-coloured, syrupy liquid on the table and remarked: "This is what the Austrian wine forger scene uses". It was diethylene glycol, which is used in antifreeze. After mass production in the 1970s and the fall in prices of Austrian quality wines, state winery inspectors had long had vague suspicions. After all, so much Prädikat wine could not be produced naturally. But requests for house searches of suspected wine merchants were regularly rejected by the court as disproportionate
Of course there were analytical quality samples for wines even then, but the detection limit at that time was 200 mg diethylene glycol per litre of wine. But this was well known in the Austrian wine counterfeiting scene. In order to push the glycol content below the laboratory detection limit, one in ten was mixed with unadulterated wine. As a result of the above-described reference, laboratory methods were now refined in Austria, and glycol wine was now recognisable as adulterated by means of the gas chromatography method from as little as 5 mg/l. When word of this got around in the counterfeiting scene, sewage treatment plants collapsed because the glycol wine was poured into the canal in extreme quantities, which are not exactly known to this day, just to avoid being convicted or caught. Hundreds of thousands of hectolitres of wine had to be burned to produce industrial alcohol
Most of the wine was produced by winegrowers from Lower Austria and Burgenland, some were also advised by a chemist. Diethylene glycol was added to give the wine more "body and sweetness" or sweetness, which was particularly appreciated by consumers in Germany at that time. Glycol was not only used to turn ordinary table wine into Prädikatswein, but also to produce thousands of hectolitres of artificial wine. These liquids looked and tasted like wine, but had never come into contact with grapes or wine. Water was simply mixed with, among other things, tartaric acid, malic acid, potash, glycerine, ammonium chloride and diethylene glycol. The product is not without danger. The limit is 16 g/l, which can even be fatal for sensitive people. This amount was detected in a Burgenland ice wine. Due to the mostly low concentration there were hardly any health damages. The most common side effects were nausea and kidney problems. There were no seriously ill or even dead people.
The stone was finally set in motion when a winegrower conspicuously wanted to claim large quantities of antifreeze for tax purposes, even though he only owned a small tractor. At the beginning of April 1985, the targeted controls began. Right at the first farm inspected in Apetlon, diethylene glycol was detected in 34 of 38 samples taken. A similar picture was found at a second winery in Podersdorf. Finally, on 23 April 1985, the Ministry of Agriculture sounded the alarm and warned against the glycol wines. A total of 55 detectives carried out 850 house searches of winegrowers, traders and chemical plants. In July 1985 and February 1986 a total of 80 suspects were arrested. Approximately 23 million litres of wine were confiscated, and the total volume of counterfeit wines could never be clarified. According to investigations, at least 340 tons of diethylene glycol have been added to the wines since 1976.
The scandal eventually spread beyond Austria's borders, as the majority of adulterated wines were delivered to Germany, where they were partly "further processed". German wine was unlawfully adulterated with Austrian glycol wine by large German wine bottlers from the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. The Pieroth company in particular was targeted by the investigating authorities. However, the company denied to have known about the machinations. Sensational reports in West German newspapers led to a negative climax. The Bild-Zeitung of July 12, 1985 had the headline "Frost protection wine at grandma's birthday - 11 poisoned". This triggered a media campaign against Austrian and especially Burgenland wines, which finally found its way to the whole of Europe and overseas. Even the "New York Times" put the scandal on the front page. The BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) had all Austrian wines withdrawn from circulation
After lengthy investigations, there were 325 complaints, 52 criminal charges for violations of food or wine law and 21 charges of commercial fraud. From the criminal proceedings that followed, it emerged that the first "applications" in Austria had probably been made on a smaller scale as early as 1976. Especially the vintages 1980 to 1984 were affected to a greater extent, because above all the wine merchants involved "became increasingly greedy" according to witnesses. This was also done with great criminal energy and sophistication. The tank trucks for export had been manipulated in such a way that the tasting tap intended for taking samples led to a small container of about 200 litres containing unadulterated wine. During the trials, which lasted for years, some of the convicts were sentenced to up to eight years in prison. One of them committed suicide. Large wine merchants went bankrupt, even if they were not directly involved, and large wine producers had to file for bankruptcy.
The damage to the image was considerable and led the Austrian wine industry to the brink of ruin. In the USA, the FBI prevented the ÖVP politician Alois Mock (1934-2017) from presenting Austrian wine as a guest gift during a visit by President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004). Austria's wine exports fell by 95% overnight. At the end of 1986 the ÖWM (Österreich Wein Marketing) was founded to help alleviate the consequences of the scandal, among other things by means of marketing measures. However, the incident ultimately caused something very positive. Already at the end of August 1985, the National Council passed the new wine law, which was described as the "strictest wine law in the world". Among other things, each bottle had to be fitted with a banderole (which was replaced by a round label on the closure in 2008) to prevent abuse
The 1970s saw a wine boom in Italy. Especially the red wine variety Barbera, suitable for mass production, was used to produce mass wines in huge quantities. In the years 1985 and 1986 the so-called "methanol scandal" became public, which affected many Barbera wines due to the large quantities. Among others, the DOC wines Barbera d'Asti, Barbera del Monferrato and Piemonte del Barbera were among them. The cheap and extremely toxic alcohol methanol was added to the wines to increase their alcohol content. Above a certain amount this leads to blindness and in extreme cases to death. There were hundreds of sick people and eight dead. The main supplier of this swill was a wholesaler from Manduria near Taranto in Apulia. As a result, these wines were almost unsaleable and stocks of the variety were almost halved.
Forgeries of Bordeaux wines often originate from China. It is estimated that there are about nine times more high quality Bordeaux wines on the market than France produces. A hotel in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou sold 40,000 bottles of Château Lafit-Rothschild annually. However, the winery only delivers around 50,000 bottles to all of China each year. Around 300,000 bottles are to be marketed there annually. This means that more than eight out of ten bottles are counterfeit. The procedure is relatively simple. A cheap wine from Bordeaux is filled into a bottle similar to the Châteu Lafite-Rothschild and sealed with a cork of a great vintage with the Lafite brand. Finally, a fake label is attached, which is easy to produce with today's means (scanning the original and changing the vintage). If necessary, original forgeries are used, because even with smaller quantities the business is worthwhile.
At the beginning of 2002, it was discovered that in Hong Kong, medium-priced red wines from Bordeaux with fake labels and capsules were transformed into a Château Lafite-Rothschild vintage 1982, a 100-point rated and extremely expensive wine of the century. The bottles were worth about € 25 and then achieved as "Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1982" an up to 25-fold price - thus per bottle € 625. However, the business is in the decline because the government has started a campaign against corruption, waste and luxury. President Xi Jinping wants to give back some credibility to his Communist Party.
A second scandal, called "Brunellopoli" or "Brunellogate" (derived from "Watergate") by the Anglo-American press, occurred in 2008, when a number of companies, including the well-known Antinori, Argiano, Banfi and Frescobaldi, were suspected of food counterfeiting. The public prosecutor's office confiscated several million bottles of DOCG Brunello di Montalcino 2003, which had been presented to the public at the Vinitaly wine fair, on the specific charge of having added Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from the South instead of the exclusively permitted Brunello(Sangiovese clone).
In May 2008 the responsible US import authority decided to stop the import of Brunello. Finally this also led to a change in the production regulations. Many winegrowers, including Angelo Gaja, suggested relaxing the rules and no longer having to produce the wine from 100% Brunello Sangiovese to make it more competitive. In the end, however, the strict rule remained. The confiscated 6.5 million litres of Brunello and 0.7 million litres of Rosso di Montalcino had to be marketed as DOC or IGT. Hardly any wine falsification could be proven and only a few people were convicted.
During a raid in Zlin in southern Moravia, some 500 bottles of vodka, rum and fruit brandy with fake brand labels were seized. The samples found had a high methanol content. In the following years, there were numerous deaths, whereby an estimated number of unreported cases can be assumed. In total, it is assumed that up to 50 people died and 50 more suffered serious health problems.
In July 2019, the police searched a total of 62 wineries and apartments in the regions of Abruzzo, Apukia, Campania and Lazio on suspicion of wine counterfeiting, must enrichment and illegal oenological techniques. The prosecution ordered the seizure of four wine companies and 30 million litres of allegedly adulterated wine. The allegations:
Cheap Spanish wine was sold as Italian DOC and IGT quality at dumping prices. Must was illegally enriched with sugar and other illegal additives to increase the production volume. Heavily flawed wine is also said to have been embellished with illegal cellar techniques. In addition, an employee of the central Italian unit for food control and anti-fraud was accused of having informed the companies concerned about the authority's internal affairs and upcoming inspections.
Two cases with extensive wine counterfeiting of old vintages from Bordeaux and Burgundy are described in their own keywords. The German wine rarity collector Hardy Rodenstock (1941-2018) could never be proven to have had fraudulent intent. This was certainly the case with the Indonesian wine dealer Rudy Kurniawan, who was sentenced to ten years in prison for fraud. See general information with historical background and wine law issues under wine adulteration.
Source Glycol scandal: The Wine Scandal, Walter Brüders, Denkmayr Publishing House, ISBN 3901838457
Pleil interview: Wiener Zeitung 19.7.2010