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ANALYSIS

Mouton dressed as a scam: fakes plague wine market

Names such as Mouton-Rothschild copied to fool mainlanders keener on high cost than taste

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 4:53am

Bruno Paumard, the cellar master at a vineyard in China, cannot stop laughing while describing a bottle of supposedly French wine a friend gave him two years ago.

It is white wine, with a label proclaiming it is from the vineyards of Romanee-Conti in eastern France, the bottle bears the logo that is on bottles of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild in south-western France, and it declares its origin as Montpellier, on the Mediterranean coast.

Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, better known for highly prized and highly priced vintages from France's Burgundy region, makes only a tiny amount of white wine, labelled Montrachet. It has nothing to do with the equally prestigious Lafite, which is from the Bordeaux region, and neither brand is produced anywhere near Montpellier.

"It's the most magnificent example of a hijacked brand of wine I've ever seen," says Paumard, who works with Chateau Hansen in Inner Mongolia. "It doesn't get better than that."

Liquor stores, restaurants and supermarkets on the mainland, the world's fifth-largest wine consumer, wage a constant battle against fake wines. The number of knock-offs on the market may increase as Beijing investigates wine imports from the European Union, and threatens anti-dumping tariffs or import curbs in response to the EU slapping anti-dumping duties on Chinese solar panels. EU wine exports to China reached 257.3 million litres in 2012 for a value of nearly US$1 billion, more than a tenfold increase since 2006 as rapidly increasing wealth transformed lives and tastes. More than half of the 2012 total, 139.5 million litres, came from France.

Nobody knows how much of the market is cornered by fakes and copycats, says Jim Boyce, who follows China's wine industry on his blog, grapewallofchina.com

"Things that are faked tend to be things that are very popular," Boyce said. And wine, especially expensive wine, is popular in China, sometimes more for bragging rights than taste.

Maggie Wang, a Beijing housewife sharing a bottle of the Italian house white at a restaurant with a friend, said: "Those expensive wines are where you see more fakes.

"But there's lots of phony wine. Everything's faked in China. For a lot of Chinese consumers, the more expensive it is, the more they'll buy it. Chinese [will] buy the most expensive house, drive the most expensive car. They don't want the best, they want the most expensive."

Given the high margins and the demand, the counterfeiters tend to focus on European fine wines. The iconic Chateau Lafite has become the poster child for wine forgery. A bottle of Lafite from 1982, considered one of the greatest vintages of the 20th century, can cost upwards of US$10,000. That has led to a thriving industry in Lafite knockoffs in China. Aficionados say there are more cases of 1982 Lafite in China than were actually produced by the chateau that year.

However, Christophe Salin, president of Domaines Barons de Rothschild, which owns Lafite-Rothschild, says fake Lafite is not the major problem.

"I have never seen a bottle of fake '82 Lafite," says Salin, who has been travelling to China for 20 years. "The problem we have is the creative attitude of some Chinese. They sometimes use our name in funny ways."

Several wines on the market are branded with names close to Chateau Lafite, including "Chatelet Lafite". Chatelet is the name of one of the busiest subway stations in Paris. Lafite "is such a generic brand in China that it has widespread appeal as a name and as a status symbol," Jim Boyce says.

The mystique extends beyond wine: in Beijing there is a "La Fite British Exotic Bar" and the "Beijing Lafitte Chateau Hotel."

The first step for anyone counterfeiting wine is to find or manufacture a bottle that is close to the original. "People will also use real bottles with something else inside, or make labels that are spelled differently," says Cheng Qianrui, wine editor for the Chinese lifestyle website Daily Vitamin. "If you know wines, you can tell, but not a lot of Chinese do."

Last year's 10 per cent surge in wine imports over 2011 was led by Spain, which accounted for 36 per cent of cheaper bulk wine imports to the mainland in 2012, according to customs figures. Bulk wine accounted for just under half of all wine imports last year.

The copyright problems however tend to focus on the better-known marques. The Importer Torres Wines includes Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, another top-ranked Bordeaux, in its portfolio. Sales director Sun Yu says phony wine brands such as "Mouton & Sons" or "Edouard Mouton" pop up in the Chinese market. "It happens in secondary or third-tier cities where they don't have much wine knowledge," Sun says.

Tom Holland is on holiday

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