Beware the notes of lead and antifreeze in your pinot noir
‘A Short History of Wine Fraud’ combines a history of the most liquid of liquid assets with stories of scammers fooling experts and humble wine drinkers
Buying fine wine is often touted as an excellent investment, but this intoxicating and entertaining book also shows how it can be a costly gamble.
Even in the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans, this most liquid of liquid assets was tampered with not only by those who wanted it to make it taste better, but also by scoundrels wishing to pass off an inferior and cheap product as something classier, and which would therefore command a higher price.
We learn that “at all stages, from the harvesting of the grapes to the last drops in the bottle, the trust of wine drinkers has been violated by grape growers and vintners, wine merchants and collectors”.
Sometimes the practice can be harmless, but it has also been known to kill.
In Vintage Crime: A Short History of Wine Fraud, Rebecca Gibb suggests that both Beethoven and Handel were in all likelihood prematurely transformed from composers to decomposers by lead poisoning. The lead would have been added to their dodgy wine to make it taste better.
“The sheer quantity of wine ingested by Handel and Beethoven over their lifetimes, and the widespread but illegal practice of adding lead to improve the flavour of cheap wine, make for a convincing argument,” we are told.
Hair and a skull fragment said to have come from Beethoven have been tested, with alarming lead concentrations reportedly detected in both.
Accounts of Handel’s health suggest that “while it is far from certain that he died of lead poisoning, there are flashing neon signs pointing to the diagnosis: joint pain, loss of vision, paralysis of his right hand, confusion — the list goes on”.
Meanwhile, she also seems convinced that Beethoven may have earlier gone deaf because he consumed too much leaded wine.
A Short History of Wine Fraud triumphs in the way in which it combines a history of wine and the wine trade with some very detailed and well-researched examples of cunning crookery. Gibb writes well and can weave together convincing and authoritative tales of wine concoctions that would even make the three witches in Macbeth opt to go on the wagon.
A lot of wine has been produced over the millennia, and it is not just the odd spoonful of lead that has been slipped into the bottle or barrel.
Though the French have steadily increased controls over winemaking, with rules on where the grapes are grown and which grapes can be put in certain wines, producers and the wine trade have often been reckless about the way in which they have used more additives than are in a can of Coca-Cola to enhance the taste of a wine.
We are told of “a particularly delicious instance of stretching nine barrels of genuine Châteauneuf-du-Pape with two barrels of Algerian red, 24l of blackcurrant juice, 250g of metabisulfite, and 250g of beef blood”. Cheers!
And, of course, it is not just the French who have been to blame. Across the border in Italy, best-selling Ferrari wines were doctored with ox blood and figs to give reds a deeper colour, while other additives included banana skins, ammonia, Cuban sugar and grape juice from Tunisia.
Even SA had a share of the action. In 1858 an insider’s guide was published with recipes to transform Cape red wines into “mock Claret” — the type of fine wine produced in Bordeaux.
Meanwhile, there was a time when essences were marketed to improve the bouquet and flavours of SA ports and sherries (as they were then allowed to be called — before the EU forced SA to amend its labelling restrictions on fortified wines).
The scale of all this tampering has often been astounding. Half of the bottles of “Champagne” sold in France between 1907 and 1911 were not the genuine article.
French pinot noir (the noble grape of Burgundy) wines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were too thin, pale and tart — so “a splash of something vivid, ripe and alcoholic from the warmer climes of the south of France or even Algeria could sort out the deficiencies of the latest crop of Volnay”.
As the prices of top wines — especially the exquisite vintage rarities of Bordeaux — have climbed to astronomic levels, so has the value of recent frauds.
We read of bottles of wines supposedly discovered in the mid-1980s in a bricked-up cellar in Paris that had carved into them the initials of American founding father Thomas Jefferson — who had served as US minister, or ambassador, to France.
These sold for astronomic sums to collectors, helped by inexpert authentication by Michael Broadbent, the wine expert at Christie’s auction house in London — but it wasn’t too long before serious doubt was cast on the provenance of the wines.
Gibb suggests, for instance, that the initials carved on the bottles were unlikely to have been commissioned by Jefferson, did not match the style of his own abbreviation of his name and were most likely to have been applied by a dentist’s drill of a type that would not have been in use around the time of the French Revolution. In those days, they had a more effective way of curing toothache — the guillotine.
Another more modern swindle was perpetrated by an Indonesian crook called Rudy Kurniawan at his “in-house wine factory”, where some genuine wines were relabelled to suggest they came from more sought-after vintages.
Another way to do this is to fill an original, empty, bottle with cheaper wine or a blend of wines.
“The seeming ease with which the motivated and savvy scammer can fool the experts as well as the everyman drinker, plus the often-prohibitive cost of testing, mean that wine remains ripe for counterfeiting,” we read.
Master of wine Gibb takes the wine lover into a world of scams on the mega-rich that few of us are likely to experience. However, she also explains how routinely the humbler wine drinker has also been conned over many centuries.
This book leans heavily towards France, which is as it should be — as so many of the world’s wine treasures (and wine tampering) originate from there.
She also writes a lot about Austria, where it was discovered that many uninspiring wines were given a taste boost with a chemical that is closely related to antifreeze.
As fine wine is touted more and more as an attractive asset class, this book provides a convincing argument that the buyer really must be more aware.
Just as you can’t always judge a book by its cover, we wine lovers should become particularly wary of judging a bottle — and especially the very expensive ones — by its label.
Think how many unfinished symphonies lead-lined Beethoven might have completed if he had known then as much as we know now about wine fraud.
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