The Winemaker’s Fraud in Bordeaux is Called Out

fraudulentwineThe Drinks Business has published a damning and slicing editorial (endorsed by the entire “Staff”) that condemns what appears to be the widespread practice of Bordeaux vintners to “doll up” or “sex up” a sample of the most recent vintage to show to the trade during the all important En Primeur week when the last vintage’s wines are tasted through and assessed. To put it another, Drinks Business is condemning the widespread practice of fraud in Bordeaux.

If I understand correctly, many Bordeaux houses are creating special barrels of wine that do not reflect the current state of the wine in order to make them appear for opulent, more developed and more complete at the time of the En Primeur tastings than they normally would.

French consultant Stephan Derenoncourt explains the process:

“Our method is to remove a bit of each distinct parcel and to put them through a special preparation to speed up the elevage. Therefore we put them into barrel earlier than the others, straight after the running off in fact, so that the marriage between the wines and the wood may happen more naturally than if we were to put the wines through that at a later date.”

Drinks Business evaluates this practices and concludes, properly, that  the true purpose of this hocus pocus “is to deceive, to make people believe something that is untrue, in this case we might say to swallow evidence that is fallacious.”

Let me translate this for American readers: There is no reason to trust the Bordeaux vintners.

We have nothing like “En Primeur” Week in the U.S. where a region’s wines are presented for evaluation while still very young and in advance of pricing and where merchants, importers and brokers can, upon tasting, commit to purchasing various wines. What we have are press samplings and the occasional instance where some critics taste wines that are still in barrel. From tasting the bottled samples and the samples of a wine still in barrel, critics will produce an evaluation of the wine for publication. This is standard stuff. I’ve been arranging for bottled samples for the media for more than twenty years.

But to be clear, it would be equally easy for a U.S. vintner to concoct a “special” barrel of wine that could be bottled up purely for sampling purposes. The question is could this barrel be made to appear something more, something greater, something more elevated than what is represented by the rest of the barrels that get bottled up for sale. Of course it could. One might start by simply segregating a specific part of a vineyard that always produces more opulent, more complete, more intense fruit and vinify it separately for the purposes of barreling it down separately and bottling separately. Or one might use a different kind of barrel to extract a specific type of flavor component known to produce a more attractive wine when young. Or, one might utilize a variety of additions or techniques on a small batch of wine that produces something more attractive to critics.

The fact is, the ways by which preparations to deceive can be undertaken are too numerous to mention.

Does this happen here in the states? I’ve never been privy to such a thing. But I’m just a marketer and publicist. I don’t work in the cellar and I don’t prepare the samples to be sent off to critics and reviewers. But my guess is that it probably has happened and it probably has happened on numerous occasions. The upside of a very good review from the right critics has surely been enough to induce fraudulent behavior in vintners.

As for the fraudulent practice that appears to have been uncovered in Bordeaux and properly and courageously condemned by The Drinks Business editorial, the only question that remains is how the trade will react to the evidence that they are being purposefully deceived by Bordeaux vintners? A fraud is only as useful as there is a willingness to be deceived.

10 Responses

  1. Charlie Olken - July 17, 2013

    This all sounds like a scene from Casablanca, “I am shocked to find out that wineries put their best feet forward when showing young wines”.

    Or to quote Tim Mondavi back in the day when CA wineries tried to join the “Futures” game. I say to Tim, “This young wine is pretty smooth and accessible”, and Tim says to me, “Charlie, you did not think that we would come out here with some tannic, unresolved baby that no one could hold in their mouths for more than a second or two, did you?”.

    In other words, this is nothing new and Drinks Magazine is cottoning to it several decades after the fact. Tim had no need to hide the truth. It was evident to everyone who tasted the wine. No six month old wine of any repute and ageworthiness is going to be approachable. That is why, aside from a very few writers who tasted from the barrel (and get the sexed up barrel in any event), most legitimate, honest reviewers taste finished wines.

  2. Ron Marsilio - July 17, 2013

    Fraud in Bordeaux, why I never….!

  3. Dwight Furrow - July 17, 2013

    As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

    I’m sure we will be hearing that this practice doesn’t really change the wine; it just advances the aging process to make it more like what consumers will taste when the wine enters its drinking window. Of course, there is no guarantee that the blend of these “samples” is anything like the final product.

    If I’m an investor, why would I put any stock in these reviews that come out of En Primeur week?

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  6. Lee Newby - July 18, 2013

    This has been going on for 100s of years, and they just discovered it now………… once it was loading the weak thin cab with syrah to give it colour and body………… of course they pull the best barrel for “show and tell” and it may be one of several special oak barrels, the winegrowers that don’t care keep it for their own table.

  7. 1winedude - July 18, 2013

    Could be a tempest in a teapot, unless it can be shown that the samples tasted differed significantly from the wines later bottled. And they’ve been no shortage of so-so reviews based on barrel samples…

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