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March 27, 2015

The science of ... wine forgery

While Philly firmly remains a beer town, restaurants and bars across the city have been busy popping corks and pouring their best vino in honor of Philly Wine Week. Wine has a certain romance to it, and every bottle tells its own story — typically one of lush vineyards and humble winemakers. 
  • This is the latest installment in a series called “The Science of Everything,” an opportunity for science journalist Meeri Kim, Ph.D., to explore the how and why of everyday things.
But there's a dark, criminal underbelly to the wine industry, one nearly as old as wine itself and persistent to this day: wine fraud. Wine fraud can mean manipulating the product itself, such as adding alcohol, sweeteners or water, or having a mismatch between what's on the label versus what's in the bottle. 

Roman winemakers would use sapa, or reduced grape juice boiled in a lead vessel, to sweeten and help preserve wine. This also meant they were slowly poisoning their customers, and this practice caused severe lead poisoning throughout Europe. Pliny the Elder, a Roman scholar, complained that even the richest nobles in his day couldn't be sure that what they were drinking was really fine wine. 

The most notorious example of wine fraud discovered in recent years is the smoke-and-mirrors act pulled by once-celebrated wine collector Rudy Kurniawan, left. The California resident used countless tricks to fool clients out of millions, including bottles of rare French wine with labels printed from his own computer, and mixing old wines with newer bottles to infuse an authentic aged flavor. One client, billionaire William Koch, alleged that he spent more than $2 million on Kurniawan's knock-offs. 

“It's like counterfeiting money. No one's counterfeiting a dollar bill, they're counterfeiting fifties and hundreds,” said Keith Wallace, founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia. “Take Château Margaux 1986 [with an average price of $700] — there's been more of that wine sold than has ever been made.”

Kurniawan is now serving a 10-year prison sentence and has been ordered to pay $28.4 million in restitution to those he duped. At his trial in late 2013, prosecutors argued that his exceptional palate and renowned ability to discern wines helped him master the art of fraud, creating blends in his home laboratory that could easily be passed off as the real thing. 

But how easy is it to create a fake expensive wine? What goes into making a wine taste aged?


“It's much easier to make a fraudulent younger wine — I could take a $20 bottle of Cabernet, say that it's Opus One, and sell it to people,” said Tria co-owner and wine director Michael McCaulley. “But if it's more than 30 years old, the aromas and flavors that come from wine as it matures are very difficult to duplicate.”

Wine, like coffee, has an extremely complex flavor profile made up of hundreds of different aromatics. Each beverage is associated with more than 800 volatile compounds — these are the odor molecules that evaporate off of whatever we're eating or drinking and waft up through the air and into our noses. Each volatile compound has its own distinct smell. For instance, rotundone is the molecule that gives Shiraz its spicy, black pepper notes. It comes from the skin of the Shiraz grape but is also found in actual peppercorns, marjoram and rosemary. 

Like rotundone, some volatiles originate from within the particular grape itself. These are called primary aromas and are often reminiscent of fruit: citrus, tropical fruit, flowers, bell pepper. 

But far more arise during fermentation, winemaking and aging. Was it aged in oak barrels? If so, how new were the barrels? Oak barrels will lend flavors of cedar and vanilla to the wine, but only for the first year or two of use. After they have been used, their value goes down considerably because they won't impart nearly as much of a punch. Also, what types of yeasts were used? Did any other microorganisms squeak their way in? All these factors influence any funky, medicinal or woody qualities you find in that glass. 

“With the complex fermentation of wine, you can get so many different smells and flavors,” Wallace said. “A great Cabernet will have three things: cedar, green pepper and sometimes chocolate. If you were eating a sandwich, you wouldn't want a cedar, green pepper, chocolate sandwich — that would be disgusting. But wine does really interesting things.”

Lastly, there's the category of new aromatics that develop after the wine has been bottled as it matures. When it comes to wine, age builds complexity. Older red wines, for example, have been known to smell like smoked meat, wild mushrooms and soy sauce

“What I think is most fascinating are the tertiary aromas and flavors, when you smell or taste something in a wine that has nothing to do with fruit: leather, tobacco, cedar,” said McCaulley. “Those come from the influence of the aging process, as the wine is breaking down or oxidizing.”

While running his counterfeit operation, Kurniawan would buy off-vintages of fine wines — years where the quality was considered inferior — which raised suspicions. Why would such a renowned wine collector choose to buy such mediocre bottles? It turns out that he was mixing these aged, cheaper off-vintages with younger Pinot Noirs to make a good-faith attempt in imitating the real thing.

Romanee-Conti is one of the world's most expensive wines. These bottles, part of a lot of 55 and assumed to be authentic, went up for auction in Hong Kong in 2011. (Kin Cheung, File / AP)

But most wine forgers don't care about what goes into the bottle as much as what it looks like. In 2013, seven members of an international group of counterfeiters were arrested in the European Union for selling at least 400 bottles of fake Romanee-Conti wine, one of the world's most expensive. Their scheme cashed in a total of 2 million euros, or $2.7 million. Upon opening some of the bottles that were left, tests by French police revealed the contents to be a lackluster blend of poor-quality wines. 

Others use real bottles refilled with a cheaper product. Empty bottle sales have seen a boom in China, where counterfeiters pay more than $3,200 for an empty Château Lafite Rothschild 1982 in order to cheat the newly rich seeking luxury items.

The oldest wine McCaulley has tasted is a bottle of Madeira from Thomas Jefferson's famed collection. A number of Jefferson bottles, including one sold for $157,000 in 1985, were called out as fakes made by German wine collector Hardy Rodenstock. Like Kurniawan, he was known for his discerning nose and blind-tasting ability, and he too made his own special blends of old and new wine. 

Was the Jefferson bottle that McCaulley sipped on real or a fraud? Even he doesn't know for sure. Because of the rarity of such opportunities and since most super-expensive bottles are stored away as investments, the overwhelming majority of the world has no clue what wine that old should truly taste like. 

There's also the element of expectation that comes with a high price tag — you feel like you should enjoy it more because you paid more for it. For instance, a study from 2008 showed that experimental subjects rated the same wine as tasting better when it was presented at a $90 price point versus $10. Not only that, but their activity in a “pleasure center” of the brain, as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging, was heightened while drinking the supposedly fancier wine.

So is there even a point to trying that hard to get the nuances of flavor spot on? Not really. But perhaps because both Rodenstock and Kurniawan used their skills to try pointed to why they built such names for themselves with the upper echelon of wine collectors, who were willing to shell out big bucks for their creations. 

“Barolo has a really fine leather quality that's very difficult to duplicate. With Bordeaux, there's an interesting quality that comes from the soil there, which is graphite. It starts to smell like very fine shavings of pencil. Burgundy smells like fresh, unturned earth after it rains,” said McCaulley. “How do you capture those things?”

Winemaking at its best is the melding of art and science, with the finished product bearing complexities of flavor that dance on the palate. While spot-on imitations may very well be possible, no forgery can ever claim the authenticity, history and artistry that go into creating a real bottle of aged fine wine.