Wine Opinion: How to spot a counterfeit

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 December, 2013, 10:49am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 December, 2013, 9:29pm

Counterfeit wine expert Maureen Downey’s advice boils down to one message: “Just keep screaming”. We are regularly asked why we are so reluctant to address the issue of counterfeiting, given its prevalence in our markets.

But with no solid numbers to hand, and a fine wine market that was only beginning to find its feet, none of us wanted to crush the growth, or worse, be called Chicken Little. Or even, as Downey jokingly refers to herself, as “that crazy blonde from California”.

The industry publication drinks business   puts the global figure for fake wine at 20 per cent by sales value.  If we accept that figure,  the counterfeit issue not  exactly the acorn to the head that makes Chicken Little think the sky is falling – it’s an entire oak tree.

Why has this problem persisted in Hong Kong for so long? Many attribute it to the Asian fear of losing face, or the Asian lack of fine wine education.  We think that Downey’s statement that Asians don’t have the generational experience with fine wine that exists in the Old World is true for the most part, and also broadly true in markets like the US.

Plus, the removal of duty created myriad questionable sources for fine wine.

There is, of course, the fear of the consequences of being the whistleblower. Even those with the best intentions can get into serious trouble if they go about it the wrong way.

The most notorious case to hit Hong Kong involves former chief secretary Henry Tang and Los Angeles lawyer Don Cornwell, a long-time Burgundy collector who is being sued for questioning the veracity of Tang’s collection of Domaine de la Romanée Conti,  which was up for auction at Christie’s. How can you judge whether your own collection might feature  fakes? First of all, swallow your pride. If your bottles are fake, you deserve restitution; you wouldn’t let somebody walk out of your home with US$5,000 because you were ashamed your alarm system had failed. Experts like Downey, as well as Hong Kong customs and the police, are the people to turn to.

While we can’t share all the incredible visuals Downey showed in  a presentation about counterfeiters’ techniques, there were highlights. One related to label dirt; observed under a magnifying glass, an over-regular pattern of brown spots would indicate this “dirt” was made with a dot matrix printer.

The Pétrus label, famously emblazoned with St Peter’s visage, should be looked at with scepticism. “If St Peter starts to look like Osama bin Laden,”  it’s a clear indication that the image has been physically copied too many times.

The capsule is a giveaway: if it’s creased to any degree – particularly if the label is pristine – you shouldn’t trust its age.

“Special bottlings” are an area rife for abuse, too, and Downey looks at even the most established ones like Reserve Nicolas with mistrust.

Finally, if it gets to this stage, there is taste. Although some people have a perfect recipe for recreating 1945 Mouton, others are less sophisticated. So if that 1929 Cheval Blanc tastes “remarkably young”, it’s probably not that remarkable.

So how can you protect yourself, particularly  at auction? Downey put it this way: “Sotheby’s has an impeccable record, Christie’s similarly so, Zachys had some fumbles in the past, but has made amends since then. And that’s all I will say about that group.” 

Ten spectacular seasonal bottles

Vintage port

Quinta Do Noval 1997, HK$3,280, Watson's Wine


St Nicholas Abbey 10 Year Old, HK$2,250, The Rhum Boys

Vintage champagne

Louis Roederer Cristal Brut 2005, HK$2,080, Watson's Wine


Katsuyama Gen Ruby Sake, HK$2,340, Berry Bros & Rudd


Hennessy XO Cognac, HK$1,880, Watson's Wine

Single malt Scotch whisky

Highland Park 18 Year Old, HK$960, Watson's Wine Sherry

Noe, Pedro Ximenez Dulce Muy Vieji V.O.R.S 30 Years, HK$450, Amorosso Fine Wines

White wine

Didier Dagueneau Pouilly Fume Silex, 2006, HK$960, Altaya Wines

Red wine

Malatinszky Kuria Cabernet Franc, Unfiltered, HK$880, Veritas Wine


Chateau D'Esclans Whispering Angel, 2012, HK$225, Watson's Wine