French wines fall victim to Chinese counterfeiting

After designer handbags, perfumes and tablet computers, the latest global success story to fall victim to Chinese counterfeiting is French wine. The process is easy, a vender tells FRANCE 24, and most customers don’t seem able to tell the difference.


Copycat kings of the world, the Chinese counterfeit industry has added a new item to its production line: vintage French wine. Impossible to tell a genuine bottle from a fake one, many unsuspecting customers will remain none the wiser until their first sip. And even then, only a connoisseur could taste the difference.

“A bottle of wine is very easy to replicate,” Sheng Wen*, a wine seller from Shanghai, told FRANCE 24. “The counterfeiters search for original bottles in restaurant trash. Once they’ve got hold of one, they reproduce the label and replicate the bottle. They then buy mid-range bottles of wine from the supermarket, pour them into the fake bottles, and sell them.”
Wine is relatively new to China, in both its genuine and phony forms. Preferring to stick to Baidu, the gutsy spirit that has been washing down their dinners for centuries, the Chinese viewed wine, until recently, as a Westerners’ drink.  
But after growing acclaim, and – strangely enough – a government campaign promoting its health benefits, wine has become a must-have at swanky dinner parties. For the newly wealthy, it is one of the many luxuries that symbolises their admission to the global elite and emergence from the privations of decades of strict communist rule.
“Wine is seen as a rich person’s drink,” says Sheng. “And that means everyone wants to be seen drinking it.”
A new penchant for Bordeaux made China and Hong Kong the world’s biggest Bordeaux importers in 2010. Some 33.5 billion bottles made their way into the country, and straight into the dragon’s den of counterfeit expertise. Like any valuable product, it didn’t take long for the fakes to start lining the shelves.
More money than sense?
One of the major victims of Chinese counterfeiting is the Chateau Lafite Rothschild ’82, a Bordeaux that has gained more popularity in China than in its home country. Described as “the reference” Bordeaux by Zhongguo Wine, a blog on the Chinese wine market run by two French expats, the price for a bottle shot up by 574% between 2001 and 2010 after sales in China went through the roof.
Today, a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild from 1982 can fetch up to 5,400 euros. That means around 5,000 euros of profit per bottle for a resourceful counterfeiter -- and there are plenty of those in China. Lucas Botebol, one of the Zhongguo bloggers, estimates that some 70% of the Chateau Lafite sold in the country must be fake due to the fact that the sales numbers vastly outstrip the import figures. “There is more Lafite '82 in China than was produced in France,” Romain Vandevoorde, head of wine importer Le Baron, told AFP. “So you really have to be wary if you find any of that in China.”
For a European wine merchant who deals in sales to Hong Kong, the figures are not surprising. “I don’t think the Chinese have a clue what they’re drinking,” he told FRANCE 24, on condition of anonymity. “They wouldn’t realise if they weren’t drinking a Lafite because they don’t know what it’s supposed to taste like.”
The Shanghai vender agreed. “A lot of Chinese people honestly wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a top French wine and something from the supermarket,” he said.
‘Drinking a label’
Wine vender Yang Yi, who owns a wine boutique in the prosperous eastern Chinese city of Suzhou, sympathised with deceived customers. “These people have no idea,” he told FRANCE 24. But Yang described his own customers as “connoisseurs” who would recognise a counterfeit wine from the first sip.
The European merchant we spoke to was not convinced.  “The Chinese don’t really like wine. They drink it because it’s the in-thing,” he said. “What sells in China is brands, not tastes; they’re drinking a label.”
Already overwhelmed by phony laptops, designer handbags and cartons of cigarettes, will the counterfeit police now begin the search for fake winemakers?
“It’s not going to be easy for the police,” says Yang. “You can only tell a wine is fake by what’s inside the bottle. How can they be expected to know what certain French wines taste like?”
The only solution for customers, Yang says, is to buy from a reputable dealer who keeps a close watch on his stock. Is he surprised that there is so much fake wine on the market? “Ha!” he laughs. “The Chinese counterfeit everything. Why do computers and not wine?”
FRANCE 24 contacted Chateau Lafite for comment but has not received a response.

* Name has been changed. 

Follow Sophie Pilgrim on Twitter: @sophiepilgrim.

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