Bogus Bubbles: The Untold Story of Counterfeit Champagne

Posted by | Posted in Wine News | Posted on 09-26-2012

A Counterfeit Champagne Workshop.

Richard Juhlin, perhaps the world’s foremost authority on Champagne, has tasted literally thousands of bottles of the sparkling golden liquid over his prodigious career. Indeed, his book – 4000 Champagnes — is regarded as the definitive tome on the subject. But he thought he never had encountered a counterfeit bottle until one weekend this past spring. At a large Dom Pérignon tasting in Denmark, he was caught off guard.

“Two bottles of really old DP Oenotheque were really good looking fakes, at least at first sight. But the wine was not even close to Champagne, nor wine,” Juhlin recounted over email. “By taste it was undrinkable – just a bubbly chemical mix smelling of coffee and vanilla extracts in an awful way.”

How could an expert like Juhlin taste so much Champagne without ever encountering a fake? Is it because counterfeit Champagne is so rare, or because those who practice such dark arts are so proficient at fooling people? If it’s because there aren’t many fakes in the market, why?

Another noted Champagne expert, Peter Liem of ChampagneGuide.net, also tells me that he has never to his knowledge tasted counterfeit Champagne. As Liem explains, “the logistics of faking Champagne seem daunting: it requires much more complicated machinery for re-corking, including affixing the cages and foils. Anyone who’s ever opened an old bottle of Dom Pérignon knows how maddeningly stubborn those foils can be.”

In the wake of the Rudy Kurniawan scandal, counterfeit wine has come to the forefront of the wine world’s consciousness. Countless articles have been written, movies have been pitched, and record web traffic has been achieved. But nowhere has Champagne been mentioned. Perhaps this is because Rudy K. himself was not involved. On that, the evidence is inconclusive. Champagne labels were not mentioned among the materials seized from Rudy’s house. However, Don Cornwell, the Los Angeles attorney credited in part with blowing open the scandal, has said that his understanding is that Rudy “was also alleged to sell counterfeit Champagne” and that “this was accomplished by means of label switches.”

Wine critic Brad Baker, known as “The Champagne Warrior,” is a bit more diplomatic at first. “Rudy was definitely a Champagne geek, though, to me, he seemed far more interested in talking Burgundy,” he says in an email. Baker later admits that he’s starting to believe there may be a fake Champagne “problem in a certain circle” and he “would make an educated guess that somehow Rudy is in the chain.”

If Rudy didn’t produce counterfeit Champagne to the same extent as his infamous older Burgundy and Bordeaux, it likely is because of the difficulty inherent in the sparkling wine product. In addition to the difficulties Liem mentioned with respect to corks, cages and foils, there’s the simple problem of faking what’s in the bottle – sparkling wine, especially in its maturity, just isn’t that easy to reproduce authentically.

Therefore, most fake Champagne on the market today is of particularly poor quality. They’ll pop up from time to time, often in the United Kingdom, especially around big celebratory events like the millennium celebration. These are often the product of large, industrial operations, which make no effort to actually fool anyone once the cork is popped.

As Baker explains, “You open a bottle and it tastes like apple cider, metallic soda water, or worse.” The bottles are often obviously off as well. “Bad labels, thin glass, poor printing,” Baker says. In the case of the Dom Pérignon encountered by Juhlin in Denmark, at least the bottles were good. Only the label was wrong – “an inch too big,” says Juhlin’s companion.

Counterfeiting older vintages of Champagne is a different story, and the end result depends on how much the faker cares about fooling the ultimate drinker.

Some fakers just try to make a quick sale based upon a big name. Baker says that “these wines tend to look correct, but have fills that are too high, neck/capsule foil that is too clean, and labels that are too clean.” Not a lot of care seems to be placed into how it tastes, although at the very least, it tastes like wine. Others at least try to replicate the taste of mature Champagne, although most often in a comically exaggerated way. As Baker says, “A lot of people think old Champagne has a certain sherried, truffled, nutty taste and they take the fakes to the extreme.”

One type of fakery simply requires the swapping of younger, cheaper Champagne into an older, authentic empty bottle of a more prized vintage. Call it the Rudy method. This was the m.o. of Signore Frisciata, a 29-year-old Italian who was arrested last year following an investigation launched by a private collector who purchased bottles of 1929 Moet & Chandon, only to discover that the wine contained within was of a much more recent vintage. According to published reports, Frisciata bought newer releases of Champagne and filled older empty bottles to which he affixed counterfeit labels. The police seized a cache of counterfeit labels and tools from his home workshop, along with completed bottles ready for sale. Sound familiar? According to renowned Champagne collector Rob Rosania, “the hallmark of Frisciata is the manufactured ‘truffle oil’ nose, which overwhelmes everything.”

At the end of the day, most counterfeit Champagne is hard to detect, no matter the method of production. The reasons are many and varied: Champagne houses were notoriously bad at record keeping, at least before World War II, and were inconsistent in the bottles, labels and corks they used. Also, like with older red wine, it’s hard to say what a correct bottle is supposed to taste like, and, to an even greater degree than with, say, Burgundy, there is a lack of experienced tasters. This leads to audacity on the part of counterfeiters, who are emboldened to say, as Baker puts it, “Sorry, they were bad and too old, better luck next time, but what did you expect with wine this old?” Or perhaps the drinker just doesn’t understand old Champagne. “[U]nless you have had the wine before – how would you know?” Baker says.

Given all of these difficulties, all that Champagne enthusiasts have to go on, at least before popping the cork, are any apparent inconsistencies. For example, Baker and Cornwell recently turned their attention to a recent auction of fine older Champagne consigned by collector Rosania to Acker Auctions. On the popular internet message board Wine Berserkers, Baker noted several bottles from the auction catalog that he felt were “very questionable” because of alleged problems with the glass and labels. Cornwell later pointed out inconsistencies between the bottles offered in the upcoming sale and those offered and sold at auction four years ago. “I find the inconsistencies on these oldest and rarest bottles of Champagne, and the apparent failure to discern the conflicts vs. the prior bottles offered by Mr. Rosania in 2008 to be very disconcerting,” Cornwell wrote on Wine Berserkers. Rosania presented some reasonable points in response, and noted that he had been in contact with the Champagne houses about the bottles.

Many of the largest and most sought-after Champagne houses are taking steps to combat fraud in their recent releases, for example, by implementing codes on the corks or labels. Some of them even have sophisticated in-house anti-fraud operations. When told of Juhlin’s encounter with fakes in Denmark, Dom Pérignon’s Chef de Caves Richard Geoffroy immediately turned over the information to his corporation’s “Intellectual Property & Anti-Counterfeit Department.”

Older Champagne will continue to be a problem, however. Only through continued attention to detail and exposure of questionable bottles, such as the questions raised by Baker and Cornwell described above, legal investigations like the Rudy K. case, and vigilance on the part of auction houses and collectors themselves, can we hope to rid the market for fine mature Champagne of fakes, so we can get back to what’s really important – drinking. As Rosania himself says, “Never let us lose the desire for what this all started out as, which is the love of what’s in the bottle.”

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