Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Life Times, a Beijing newspaper on November 25th. It details the flourishing counterfeit wine market in China, the likely health problems that result from consuming these so-called "chemical wines", as well as a few tips on how to ensure that the wine you purchase is genuine and safe.
Whether a bottle is ordered for the dinner table, given as a gift or consumed at a nightclub, wine is no longer the "luxury item" that it was once considered a few decades ago. Many Chinese are now championing wine as "the healthy alternative" to baijiu, and data shows that in 2010, Chinese consumed 1.5 billion bottles of wine. What’s troubling is that these bottles of "liquid gold" have become trapped in a downward spiral of counterfeiting and fraud. On November 2nd, the Guangdong Provincial Bureau of Commerce and Industry reported that in the third quarter of 2011, spot checks in Guangdong’s inner-provincial alcohol market found that only 53.3% of the wine bought and sold passed inspection.
China’s "chemical wine" market
Earlier this year, CCTV's Focus Talk did an exposé on a counterfeit wine manufacturer located outside Changli County, Qinhuangdao in Hebei Province. This manufacturer mixed alcohol additives, fragrances and pigments together and sold it as "wine" – some of these counterfeit wines didn’t even contain grapes! Once various domestic and imported wine labels were pasted on these bottles, the fake wine looked no different from genuine wine. The Changli County facility specialised in printing counterfeit wine labels for Great Wall and Changyu wines, and the company's business manager said that the demand for their fake wine exceeded their production capabilities. This "chemical wine" exposé shocked many of China's new wine enthusiasts.
On November 16th, the Trade and Industry Bureau in Henan Province confiscated more than 670 cases of counterfeit Changyu wine, valued at more than 40,000 RMB. The counterfeit wines in question were: "Changyu Fine Red Wine" (张裕精品干红葡萄酒), Changyu Cabernet Sauvignon (张裕赤霞珠干红葡萄酒) and Changyu Cabernet (张裕解百纳干红葡萄酒), and were marked as being produced in Yantai (烟台).
High-end imported wines are being counterfeited as well. As one industry insider put it: "nine out of ten bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild are fake". This is not surprising when looking at the sales data for a five-star hotel in Dongguan, which sells 40,000 bottles of Lafite each year. The annual global production output of Lafite is less than 200,000 bottles, and of those, less than 50,000 enter the Chinese market.
Uncovering the secrets of wine counterfeiting
Mr Shi, another industry insider, explained that there are many different ways to counterfeit wine in China, and that regardless of imported and domestic, or high and low quality, all wines can be counterfeited.
There are two ways to counterfeit imported wine. First, high-end wine counterfeiting where new wine is poured into old bottles. The ’82 Lafite is particularly prone to this trick. In the Chinese market, an ‘82 "Lafite generally goes for 100,000 RMB per bottle. Counterfeiters will purchase an old ’82 bottle for 3-4 thousand RMB, and then fill it with a similar tasting, but much less expensive wine (costing at most 20,000 RMB), and then sell it for 400% profit. Because counterfeiters use real bottles, it’s very difficult to spot a fake. Another way to counterfeit Lafite is to sell brands that sound similar to the "Lafite" name, such as "Legende Lafite" and "Roche Lafite". Low-end imported wine (un-bottled) is also susceptible to counterfeiting. Mr Shi said that imported wines that only cost 10-20 RMB are inflated to 100+ RMB when they sell in China. Many traders will import cheap wine and bottle it here, or they will simply fabricate an "import" winery and sell their own "wine" at imported prices to the consumers.
There are two ways to counterfeit domestic wine, the first of which is to counterfeit blended wine. In July 2004, China required wines to be made from 100% grape juice. President of the Chinese Wine Marketing Society, Zhao Yi, said that blended wine is commonly made from saccharin, alcohol, flavouring, water, and may not contain grapes at all. Associate Professor He Jiguo of China Agricultural University said, "To keep it cheap, some counterfeiters use industrial grade alcohol (methanol) instead of beverage grade alcohol (ethanol) in blended wines. Methanol is half the price of ethanol, but it’s a toxic substance, and an excessive consumption of it may kill you." There are also some counterfeit wines that brew watermelon rinds and blend them together with grape juice to make wine – at a cost less than 3-4 RMB per bottle. The second way to counterfeit domestic wine is to use a name or label similar to Great Wall or Changyu.
Consumption of counterfeit wines can cause cancer
"Many people know that drinking an appropriate amount of wine is good for your health", He Jiguo said, but if you’re drinking counterfeits, wine is actually very hazardous. As low and mid range wines (a few hundred RMB or less) have become China’s best sellers, counterfeiters have redoubled their efforts on this price range. Many counterfeit wines use artificial colouring, which contains azobenzene, a substance known to be carcinogenic. Although consumers may not see any immediate adverse reaction to azobenzene, it gradually accumulates in the body, causing long-term toxicological effects. Also, because the production process is not standardised, hazardous microbial contamination can easily make its way into counterfeit wines. An excessive amount of biogenic amines or ochratoxin in wine can cause headaches, arrhythmia and even cancer.
Yao Shangyong (Masters in European Wine studies) suggests paying attention to the following items when purchasing wine:
1) Carefully read the wine label and the back contents label. "For imported wines, there will be a Chinese label pasted over the back label, which includes the wine's name, year, grape type, alcohol content, importer and other information." If the bottle doesn't have a Chinese label on the back, then it’s probably fake. Consumers can also identify the bottle's origin from the first digits of the barcode; 690-693 is China, 30-37 is France, 00-09 is the United States and Canada, 600-601 is South Africa.
2) Pay attention to where you buy the wine. The assortment of wines in upscale restaurants, large shopping malls, supermarkets and specialty wine shops are generally the safest. Small restaurants and wine shops will likely have a mix of real and fake wines. Counterfeit wines, especially the blended counterfeits are mostly sold at nightclubs: "In your average nightclub, more than 90% of the bottles are fake", Yao Shangyong said.
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Keywords: Counterfeit wine in China percentage of counterfeit wine in China how to spot counterfeit wine in China dangers of counterfeit wine in China
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