Friday, December 21, 2018

LeDomduVin: Fake and Counterfeit wines: Clues and Advises

Fake and Counterfeit wines: Clues and Advises

A new post to complement to my previous posts on the subject 

Fake and Counterfeit wines - Illustration by ©LeDomduVin 2018

Following my previously lengthy posts about Fake and Counterfeit wines (that you can read here, here and here), I just wanted to complement them by writing some sort of a recap of what has been said in these posts and adding a few more clues and advises on how to spot fake and counterfeit wine bottles, (right after a brief personal opinion on the beauty of and the attraction to expensive wines combined with a brief history of the wine evolution).

1. Subject to a certain form beauty: a brief history of wine evolution

Since the beginning of time, men and women have had the same inherent weakness: they have always been attracted by the beauty of shapes, colors, and/or forms, pleasing the aesthetic senses, more especially the sense of sight, basically what is seen through the eyes with the feelings and emotions generated through the whole body when beauty is sensed. 

Although one can see beauty in all things from very early childhood, rather than coming naturally, this aesthetic sense for beauty is developed gradually from a very early stage in someone’s life, based on past experiences, environment and surrounding (family, people, objects, places, etc..), life style (conditions, circumstances, travels, traditions, education, etc..), character and personality. 

One’s aesthetic sense of beauty is the innate, intrinsic and subjective appreciation and perception by the heart and the mind of certain qualities of subtle beauty in people or things, which are not necessarily seen by the eye or felt by the hand or smelt by the nose or heard by the ear, and thus difficult to be perceived or understood by others. 

And wine has become over time subject to a certain form of beauty in the mind of people.

Historically, wine, which started its existence roughly a little more than 8,000 years ago, as a rather primitive and wild fermented grape juice, rapidly evolved into a more domesticated beverage, with the earliest evidence of grapes found in pieces of pottery, big jar and amphorae made of clay (probably used for the fermentation and transportation) in Georgia 6,000 BC. Evidences of wine made from fermented grapes were also found in China 5,500 BC and Armenia 4,100 BC. This agricultural product was predominantly made to be originally consumed during rituals and special occasions, then during religious and festive events around 4,000 years ago while worshiping gods like Dionysus by the Greeks and Bacchus by the Romans (I spare you the whole story about the ancient Egyptians growing, importing and trading wine several millennia ago, otherwise it will be too long...). In short, wine then became a requisite part of religious masses and rituals (Jewish, Christian, etc…) and the drink of the nobles and the wealthiest. 

First wine about 8,000 Years Ago (6,000 BC) - Illustration by ©LeDomduVin 2018

Wine was further produced, developed and consumed by the Romans throughout the Roman Empire (basically in all the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea), then by the monks and the peasants during the Middle Age. Its production and consumption increased from the 15th century onward, predominantly by and for the religious and the nobles and the wealthiest (during these times again). 

Prior Christopher Columbus, wine was mostly a beverage of the old world (the old continent), and basically about 16 countries located to the north of the Mediterranean sea constituted the main producing countries of the world (not including countries of North Africa and the Middle east). These 16 countries led by France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Portugal, remain to this day, the major key players in the wine world.     

Post-Columbus, the wine spread out in the New World: the Americas (North and South), South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, Russia and the rest of Asia. And although some sort of wines were made in China and Japan since 3,000 BC, the wines of the old Europe were unequaled in terms of taste and quality. 

Map of the major wine producing countries and most ideal latitudes back 50 years ago by ©LeDomduVin 2018

Back 50 years ago, out of 190+ countries in the world, only about 30-40 countries were making wine within the latitudes defined as the most ideal for growing grapes and producing wines, between 30° and 50° North (Northern Hemisphere) and between 30° and 50° South (Southern Hemisphere) (refer to Map above). And it was nearly unthinkable to produce wines anywhere else at the time.

Map of nowadays major wine producing countries by ©LeDomduVin 2018

Yet, 50 years later, nowadays, due to ever evolving technologies and climate changes, as well as the insatiable need for men (and women) to always explore the unknown and push the limits further to the extreme, production and consumption are now occurring throughout the whole world. Wines are now even produced in countries and areas where none thought it would have been possible only half of a century ago, roughly anywhere in between the latitudes 60°N to 50°S (refer to map above).

Some wines are now made at very high altitude, above 3000 meters (9842 feet) above sea level, in remote locations lost in the mountains, some are produced under subtropical climate on small Islands and some even have their roots in or under the water.

Unbelievable, right? More especially when, not that long ago, oenologists, winemakers and scientists were still thinking that vines could only grow under very specific climate and environmental, geographical and geological conditions.

Just to give you a few examples of the strangest and most extreme places where vines are now grown and wines are produced in these rather peculiar conditions:

The most difficult
  • Riesling vines planted on terraced cliffs at 70-degree angles in the Mosel, in Germany
  • Bodega La Geria grows Malvasia in the desertic area of the Lanzarote holes in the Canary Islands
  • Sahara Vineyards planted in the desert roughly 50 km south of Cairo, in Zamalek, Egypt
  • Domaine du Val d'Argan Essaouira producing Rhone-Valley-like wines in the desert of Morocco, near the town of Essaouira, with the 13 grape varieties from the Rhone Valley

The northernmost
  • Lerkekåsa Vineyard, located in Telemark, Norway and located at 59°40 North (the northernmost commercial vineyard in the world)
  • The Olkiluoto nuclear power plant vineyard, used as an experimentation (not for commercial use) is located even further north at 60°14 N in Finland and constitute the northernmost experimental vineyard in the world)

The lowest
  • Domaine Royal de Jarras has vineyards planted in marsh-like sandy soils in Camargue, in the southern part of the Languedoc, in France

The highest
  • Vinas de Uquia, Claudio Zucchino, La Quebrada de Humahuaca, located in the province of Jujuy in Argentina (north of Salta), with the main vineyards hovering at 3330 Meters (10922 feet) above sea level, and even one of their vineyards topping at a dizzying 3700 meters (12139 feet) is surely one of the (or even "THE") highest vineyards on earth
  • Bodega Colomé, a wine estate in the northerly Salta region of Argentina, also boasting the world’s highest commercial vineyards, culminating between 1848 meters (6000 feet) and 3110 meters (10203 feet) above sea level
  • Ao Yun (probably one of the most famous Chinese wines, meaning "flying above the clouds" in Chinese) located a the foot of the Meili Snow Mountain range located in the Yunnan Province, in China, possesses vineyards at 2600 meters (8530 feet) above sea level
  • Viñedos Don Leo, another extreme altitude vineyard culminating at 2,000+ meters (6562 feet) above sea level, in Parras, Mexico 
  • Fox Fire Farms, located in Ignacio, Colorado, USA, has vineyards reaching the height of 1974 meters (6479 feet) above sea level
  • Bodega Frontos, located in the village of La Granadilla de Abona, in Spain’s Canary Islands, possesses vineyards comprised between 1200 meters (3937 feet) and 1700+ meters (5577 feet) above sea level. 
  • Mount Sutherland located at about 1500 meters (4921 feet) above sea level in the Sutherland-Karoo wine growing region, South-Africa

The strangest places (not anymore though)

  • Antartica's Shackleton Hut where James Pope produces Ice wine from Riesling, Vidal and Seyval Blanc grapes planted on rocky-sandy salty soils a stone throw from the icy waters
  • Floating Vineyards (Siam Winery) located about 60 kms north from Bangkok on the Chao Phraya Delta, with vineyards planted between the Tha Chin and Mae Klong Rivers on narrow strips of land between evenly spaced canals
  • Edivo Vina winery is located underwater, off the coast of Drače on the Pelješac Peninsula, in Croatia. The wines are put in tightly closed amphorae that are stored in sunken boats acting as cellars underwater, where fermentation and aging take place.  
  • Maui Wine  located at about 610 meters (2,000 feet) above sea level on the slopes of the the Haleakalā volcano, near Kula, Hawaii.

Let's look at the map again:

Map of nowadays major wine producing countries by ©LeDomduVin 2018

As you can see on the map above, nowadays, vines are basically grown nearly everywhere in the world, (not on the map but even in Antarctica),  either for grape consumption (raisins), food products (jam, jelly), grape seed extract (remedy), vinegar (condiment), distillation (alcohol), grape juice and most importantly wine production for commercialization or for experimental purposes.

Looking at the map closely, the only countries not producing wines are

  • either the ones that have the less favorable climate, geographical and geological conditions and environment to grow vines (like most parts of West and Central Africa, but I would not be surprised if vines will grow there one day... or not if climate-change completely dries up the land), 
  • or basically the countries where wine is prohibited (made illegal by law, along with religious and/or political reasons and/or to counter alcohol use and addiction) like in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, some parts of India (only in the states of Gujarat, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland, and the union territory of Lakshadweep), Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, UAE (only Shariah), Yemen, Pakistan (only for Muslims)  (the strange thing is that you can still find alcohol and wines at the airport and in other duty free zones or specific zones for expatriates in these countries... 😊)  
  • or, understandably, the countries that are considered unstable (politically, religiously, ethnically and/or demographically) primarily due to ineffective and/or corrupt governments, dictatorships, religious wars, ethnic wars, civil wars, lack of public services and founds, failed economies, genocide, famine, diseases, or any other conflicts of political, social, economical or religious nature impacting these countries. Africa, for example, which has largely been a success story over the past 20 years, suffered (and still now) from several countries putting that progress at risk. Think Thank "Fund for Peace" adjust the list of the most unstable nations in their yearly "Fragile States Index" according to their level of stability. For 2018, the most unstable countries on the list were: South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Chad, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Haiti, Guinea, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Burundi, Eritrea, Pakistan, Niger, Myanmar, Cameroon, Uganda. (if interested, see the full list as well as the world map of the most unstable countries on their website here)

So, compared to the 30-40 countries producing wines 50 years ago, nowadays, out of roughly 195 countries in the world, 73 countries are currently officially producing wine.... well... actually, and unofficially, it is said that 120 countries are now producing wine.

Consequently, due to this globalization, one may think that wine could have loose its identity and taste, with all these countries making wines from roughly the same 10-12 most widely planted grapes varieties in the world. But no, wine is a complex beverage and the result of an intricate combination of natural, human, mechanical and technical factors.

In fact, wines from within the same region, same appellation or even from parcels next to each other are distinguishable. For the most part, this distinction is due to the unique characteristics imparted on wine by geographical and geological conditions, the climate and micro-climate, the growing methods,  the vinification and the winemaking process, as well as the producer's skills, knowledge, experience, character and personality, and the style in which he or she makes the wine. And behind all these natural and man-made factors exists an intricate web of regulations and laws (rules per country, region, appellation, wine style, authorized grape varieties and techniques, etc...), which fundamentally influences the character of the final product.

Sorry, I'm going off-topic once again.... but those of you who know me well, know that I cannot help myself talking about other things than the main subject, it is in my nature, I can talk and write about all sorts of things for hours, even days.... and being "short" is not in my vocabulary.....😊

Picasso-like Bottle by ©LeDomduVin 2018

So, to go back to (and conclude) this "brief" history of beauty and the evolution of wine.... after all these centuries, when wine was mostly made by and for and accessible to the religious, the nobles and the wealthiest, wine finally became a common drink in most household for the less expensive, and a luxury good or an investment asset or even a collector item or even reaching the status of piece of art for some of the most expensive (like a painting from Picasso for example.... How much do you think that Picasso-like Bottle I drew for this post could cost on the market? 😉). 

In fact, expensive wines became subject to a certain form of beauty, as part of aesthetics, culture, traditions, social psychology, philosophy and sociology, providing a perceptual experience of personal (or shared) pleasure and/or satisfaction (and/or even substantial profits). Top tiers wines have become Luxury products, commodities, investment assets fetching astronomical prices and are even considered like the equivalent of invaluable artworks by some. Few (if not none) of these rare wines are being drank by their owners. 

For the past 8 millennia, Lavish lifestyle, Beautiful people, Luxury goods and other expensive things have always attracted the lust of the most unscrupulous characters, and nowadays (more specifically over the last 15-20 years should I say) high-end wines are no exception to the rule, as counterfeiters have invested the sector of the most expensive and renowned wines of the world, speculating on men’s (and women’s) weaknesses for beauty and their taste for luxury items, and gathering along tons of significant liquidity (hard cash) by this illicit means.

 The necessity of Wine Quality Control: Inspection and Authentication by ©LeDomduVin 2018

2. The necessity of Wine Quality Control: Inspection and Authentication 

Therefore, over the last 10-15 years, and despite an increasing amount of various technologies to prevent from counterfeiting, it has become a necessity for major companies buying, importing/exporting, wholesaling, trading, distributing and/or reselling high-end wines (like the company I work for) to hire specialized quality control people (like me) and wine authenticators (Wine Authentication Managers or Directors) to put their skills, knowledge and experience to work to detect (and fight against) fake and counterfeit wines by doing careful inspections and authentications prior the purchase if possible, and/or at good receiving if not possible before. 

During my 27 years career in the wine business, I can say that I have seen quite a few examples, equally bad and good, some quite ridiculous and too obvious, as well as some extremely well made and difficult to spot. Yet, my trained eyes and careful attention to details sharpen by nearly 3 decades of close examination of the bottles from many different sources (Chateaux, Négociants, Auction Houses, Retails, Private Collectors, etc….) can now quickly spot the imitations and remove them from the lots. 

To be good at wine quality control and authentication, despite a minimum of interest on the subject as well as a minimum of skill and experience, (and this is a very important point), you must be a details-oriented person, opened-minded and curious, with the will and desire to learn, know and understand, (and also have the memory of an elephant). To be more efficient, you will need to have and gather references and records, as well as knowledge, yet knowledge will only come with time and experience and reading, listening or watching video on the subject as much as you can to improve your skills and aptitudes to detect fake and counterfeit bottles. 

The more notes and pictures you will take during each inspection/authentication, the more records you will have to constitute your own references library. That way, when in doubt, you can always refer to originals you previously inspected, make a comparison and assess the bottle more accurately. A references library will also enable you to trace and track the various changes that may have occurred over time for the same wine due to simple ascetic’s design evolution varying due succeeding generations or the market trends or due to a change of ownership or for security reasons (change of capsule, label, shape of the bottle, etc…). It is very important to know the historical changes of a wine, it will contribute greatly to your knowledge about this wine and prevent from you making the mistake of thinking that it could be a fake while it is not (or is it? 😊). 

Now, let me recap some of the basic steps of the inspection and authentication of a bottle of wine (already detailed in my previous posts on the subject herehere and here), and in the meantime share with you the most obvious clues and advises on how to spot fake and counterfeit wine bottles. 

Petrus 1985 Label Comparison ©LeDomduVin 2018

4. Let’s clarify some definitions!

First and foremost, let's clarify some definitions, as it is very important to understand the difference between the words "fake", "counterfeit" and "tampered with" and dissociate them in order to correctly assess the status of a suspicious bottle. 
  • Fake wine bottle/label = a wine and/or a label that is not genuine; a forgery or sham, created to look alike or have similarities with other known wines from the same regions to deceive people into a scam (like a DRC made in Languedoc with Syrah and bottled in Bordeaux.... for example) 
  • Counterfeit wine bottle/label = made as an exact imitation of a valuable bottle of wine (bottle, capsule, cork and label and even wine taste) with the intention to deceive or defraud someone (like the bottles and labels of Rudy Kurniawan for example) 
  • Tampered with = usually a genuine bottle that one has meddled with especially for the purpose of altering its content by adding or removing wine through the capsule and cork via a syringe for example, damaging the label to disguise or conceal the vintage and make it look older, or misusing the bottle by intentionally leaving the bottle at high temperature for example to alter the color and the taste, and give the impression that the wine is older than it is. These are just a few examples, I leave other ways to tamper with a bottle of wine to your imagination. 

(...and yes, I know what you are thinking, you're right, both "Fake" and "Counterfeit" could enter into the category of "Tampered with", yet I prefer to dissociate them that way... easier to understand for some...)

Wine Inspection / Authentication basic tools by ©LeDomduVin 2018

5. Wine Inspection / Authentication Basic Tools

Secondly, to do a careful examination of a bottle during a stock inspection or a bottle authentication, you will need a few basic, yet essential, tools (I call that my “Quality Control tool box” as I’m a Quality Control Director for the company I work for…, but you could also call it the “Authentication Manager tool box” or the “Wine Authentication tool box”… as you like… ):

Wine Inspection - Bottle Examination tools

To inspect/check

A powerful flashlight (LED preferably)

Wine Color
Details on the label(s) (font, color, tiny details)
Glue trace around the label

A dark/blue ultraviolet light (could be the same as the flash light, some do both functions)

Details on the label(s) (font, color, tiny details)
Unveil holograms and/or other hidden images or writings embedded in the label (or even in the glass of the bottle), invisible to the naked eye, and therefore indiscernible without a proper tool

A magnifier / magnifying glass

Details on the label(s) (font, color, tiny details)
Details on the glass of the bottle (small prints and/or codes, laser printed on or engraved in or even embedded in the glass of the bottle)
Defaults and asperities on the glass of the bottles

A ruler
Wine level (depending on vintage and conditions of the bottle)
Label position (some wineries are very particular on placing all their labels at the exact same measurement)

A cutter

To cut the capsule, basically make a vertical incision in the capsule to check the cork (in case of doubt, and with the approval of the owner if done prior purchase of course)
To remove remains of very sticky labels 

Transparent Adhesive Tape

To close the cut capsule
Eventually to remove dust particles or remains of very sticky labels 

Your phone

To scan NFC Labels, QR Codes and other encrypted and tamper-proof certificates which are mostly readable via smartphone’s app to check the authenticity of the bottle

Your camera (either on your phone or a real camera)

To take pictures of the bottle in full, as well as close-ups and details to be used as references and kept as records

A laptop computer (excel file) and/or a note book + a pen

To take notes during the bottle Inspection / Authentication and saved them as records of

  • The overall bottle conditions
  • The Capsule
  • The Cork
  • The Level
  • The Label(s)
  • The Color
  • The Sediments
  • The Punt
  • Some Remarks and/or Inspection status (pass or not pass)
Remember to save both the pictures and the bottle inspection results in a folder on your computer for records purposes

An excel file is probably the best, including in each columns
  • The Wine name/description
  • The vintage
  • The volume of the bottle (750 ml, etc..)
  • Then all the points to inspects (cited above)
  • Date of the inspection 
  • Place of the inspection
  • Supplier's name
  • Person's name you did the inspection with
You can add more columns if needed, but this  list should give you a good head-start if prepared prior doing the inspection

I know that you are now armed with your tools and eager to start the bottle inspection, but do you know what to look for on a bottle of wine to verify if it is a genuine bottle or not? Yes? No?... No... then you are not quite ready yet. But, lucky you, in the following chapter, I'm giving you the basic minimum knowledge required when inspecting and/or authenticating a bottle. 

Yet, prior doing your first in inspection, you should get acquainted with the language and abbreviations used in the wine industry, as it is important for you to understand what you are talking about (it will give more credibility and will appear more serious in a conversation with Quality Control and Wine Authentication people, as you won't have to cut the conversation to ask questions about what is "BN" or "SPC" for example). 

Bottle Description: Bordeaux vs Burgundy by ©LeDomduVin 2019

6. Bottle Description: Language and Abbreviations

The preferred language (including the resulting abbreviations and terms) to describe the conditions of the bottle, capsule, cork, label(s) during a wine inspection/authentication has been used in the wine trade/industry (roughly) since the 15th century onward and further developed by the auction houses since the 18th century. So, this is nothing new, but it is important to get acquainted with it.

The words, abbreviations and terms used are now pretty universal and rather common to the whole wine trade in general. Of course, each auction house has its few exceptions and variants, but overall everybody speaks the same language (more/less) when it comes to wine inspection/authentication (not like on the above illustration of Bordeaux vs Burgundy bottles, that I made especially for this chapter - by the way, funny, no?).

You can always go and check each auction house website to find the language they use for bottle condition descriptions (bottle, capsule, cork, wine level or "ullage", label(s)) (Acker being probably the most complete in terms of abbreviations); or you can just click on the following links to go to the pdf format documents for each of the major auction houses (by Alphabetical order):

  • Acker Merrall and Condit (Bottle Description) (click here)
  • Baghera (Inspection criteria) (click here - page 282 of their catalog)
  • Christie's (Level/Ullage Descriptions and Interpretations) (click here)   
  • Sotheby's (Glossary of abbreviations) (click here)
  • Zachys (Level/Ullage Descriptions and Interpretations) (click here)   

But, to make it easier for you, I compiled for you (below) all the various words, abbreviations, terms and other criteria used for  the bottle descriptions, interpretations and conditions during a wine inspection/authentication.  And I also included them into photos and illustrations (as I like to do so) for you to have a better understanding of what they mean and correspond to. A visual is worth a thousand words. 

Bottle Description Ullage - Wine Level - Abbreviations and Terms by ©LeDomduVin 2019

Wine Inspection - Authentication | Bottle Description: Language and Abbreviations -
Compiled by ©LeDomduVin2019

This list is basically a compilation of the most commonly used words by the 5 auction houses cited above (Acker Merrall and Condit, Baghera, Chrisries, Sothebys and Zachys) to describe the bottle conditions when they proceed to a wine inspection/authentication (prior the auction to assess the bottle and wine conditions), which are in turn transcribed in their catalog.

So, now that we clarified the sense of some of these abbreviations, you are now more acquainted with the language commonly used and therefore better armed and prepared to do you wine inspection/authentication.

You just need to prepare your excel shit with the additional categories to be checked (like in the table below for example):

Auction Inspection - Authentication Table example - Bottle Descriptions - By ©LeDomduVin2019

Did you prepare everything like I showed you above? Yes, so let's move on to the wine inspection/authentication points to be checked, shall we?

Wine Inspection - Authentication List of points to check on a bottle by ©LeDomduVin 2018

7. Wine inspection/authentication: List of points to check on a bottle

The following wine inspection/authentication checking points list (below) is non-exhaustive and more steps or points to check could probably be added to it, but these are just some basic inspection steps to follow in order to check the main details of the bottle, the capsule and the label(s), and eventually the cork. After you can always adapt to the situation and inspect even more in depth if you please.

Several checks might prove necessary in the presence of a suspicious bottle, more especially with old bottles/vintages, as many factors might make you think that it is a fake bottle, but it might not always be the case after all…. (I'll explain you why further below in each category). 

So, what’s to check? And what are the questions you need to ask yourself while inspecting a bottle to define if it is real or fake bottle? And/or if it has been tampered with or not? 

In the following video, I go though some of the most basic things to check on a bottle, especially when verifying the authenticity an old vintage bottle.  These basic checking steps must absolutely be done when doing an inspection or authentication of an old bottle of wine.

You can go more in details if needed, but this is just to give you an idea on how I do a basic inspection and authentication for the old bottles we buy for the company I work for.

The wines I have chosen to inspect as examples for this video are the followings: 

Château Lafite Rothschild 1945 and 1947
Château Latour 1945
Château Haut-Brion 1959
Château Cheval Blanc 1949
Château d'Yquem 1958, 1959 and 1906

Did you learn something by watching this video? Hoping my French accent wasn't too distracting and that you understood most of what I said..... If not, it is not a problem, as I'm going through each step, 1 by 1, in details below.

So, where to beginning? Well, personally, I logically like to inspect a bottle starting by its overall conditions, then scrutinize all the details by going down from the capsule to the punt, more especially for old bottles/vintages where extreme caution is required; and therefore inspect the details in the following order:

  1. Overall bottle condition(s) (glass age, color, thickness, markings, details)
  2. The Wine Level (high, low, correct for the vintage, reconditioned)
  3. The Capsule (condition, color and markings)
  4. The Cork (condition and markings)
  5. The Label(s) (condition, color, font, paper, drawing, logo, details)
  6. The Color (young, old, clear, dull, correct for the vintage)
  7. The Sediments (presence, thickness, aspect, other deposits)
  8. The Punt (or "Cul de la Bouteille") (depth, engravings/markings)
  9. The bottle format (shape, volume, engravings/markings) 
  10. The vintage
  11. The engraving and codes
  12. The technologies (anti-fraud and security solutions to secure, trace and prove the authenticity of the bottle and prevent fake and counterfeit bottles)  

Chateau Latour 1945 - Overall bottle conditions - Photo by and for ©LeDomduVin 2018

7.1 Overall Bottle Condition(s) 

Inspecting the overall condition(s) of the bottle is looking at the aspect of the bottle at first glance.

How does the bottle look? Does it look good or bad? Is it pristine or has it been roughed around? Does it present the right characteristics for its age? Does it look too new or too old for its age? Does it seem genuine or is it suspicious?

Checking the overall conditions means checking the obvious, any apparent defaults that should or should not be there for its age, and consequently drawing a first assessment of the bottle at first glance, without jumping to hastily to any conclusion.

All wine bottles falls into either one of the following categories: A or B

Category A. A bottle directly coming from a closed/sealed/banded original wooden case (OWC) or Original Carton Box (OCB) should be in pristine conditions. Unless the case has suffered substantial damages due bad storage and/or transportation conditions or external incidents (intentional or unintentional) that could have affected the case conditions and its content, no matter young or old vintage, the bottle(s) should be pristine.

If not, meaning you've just opened the case and the bottle(s) present damages on the bottle, capsule or label, you must take a video or pictures and immediately report the problem to your seller/supplier.

2 scenarios will happen: 
  • either you literally just received the OWC (or OCB) case prior opening it, and negotiations with the seller/supplier, as well as the insurance, can be done, as the damages may have occurred at the seller/supplier warehouse and/or during the shipping and/or the transportation in between, and you are probably covered for this kind of incident  
  • or, you received that specific case long ago and stored it in your own cellar or in a third party warehouse, in that case negotiations might be harder, as 
    • if it was stored in your cellar, you will have to prove it is not your fault, and your insurance may not cover it, as it will be difficult to prove  
    • if it was stored in a third party warehouse, then the warehouse will have to prove that it is not their fault, and there again you might or may not be covered by your insurance depending on the incident or what has be proven 

Category B: A bottle that has been taken out of its OWC (or OCB), and then... well, basically anything could have happened since it was taken out of its original case..... so, I'll leave it to your imagination to wonder what could have happened to that bottle..... (e.g.: been around the world many times, bad storage and/or transportation conditions, standing-up under the light for months (or years) on the shelves of a retail shop or of a supermarket, etc, etc...)

So, to resume, at first glance, you should able to see whether the bottle is in good or bad condition for its age and vintage. And if in bad condition, immediately assess if this bad condition(s) is(are) acceptable or unacceptable (as too serious and potentially translating the poor state of the wine inside the bottle).

Stain bottle/label 
  • It could be the result of a seepage or leakage from another bottle of the same case, meaning that the case may have been exposed to temperatures oscillations/variations (generally higher temperatures) while previously stored and/or during shipping/transit causing for one of the bottle to leak, and therefore give an indication that the wine contained in all the bottles of that specific case may have suffered from heat.   
  • It could also be the result of an incident like a broken bottle inside the case due to the case being roughed around or even dropped at some point in the previous storage site and/or during shipping/transit causing for one of the bottle to break. In that specific case scenario, it doesn't mean that the wine in the bottle is bad or has suffered from  bad external conditions (except being shaken a little at some point, which has no real affect on the quality of the wine). However, the stains may surely decrease the value of the wine in case of resell and this could be a problem.  

Faded label
A faded label could simply be the result of age, colors of the letters and drawings on the label fading with time... yet, it is more likely the case that the label remained too long under lights (neon lights usually are the worst and usually are the culprit for faded labels on old vintages), either in an open box in the storage site or (worst) on the shelves of a retail store or even a supermarket. 

Shape of the bottle
An essential part of the overall conditions to check, the shape of the bottle must be carefully examined, as it is an obvious indication of its authenticity. Carefully checked, it will help to immediately define if the bottle is genuine or not, even spare you from having to go through all the other steps of the inspection.

Does the shape of the bottle correspond to the wine age and vintage?  Does the glass, shape and mold marks look too new or too old for its age and vintage?  Which type of mold has been used? Is it a typical mold format for this specific wine/label?

Chateau Gruaud Larose Bottle and Label Evolution Timeline example by ©LeDomduVin 2019

In the old days, some famous Chateaux were using more Baroque forms and shapes than nowadays classic "Bordeaux" bottle, and the shape of the bottle may have evolved or radically changed with time and vintages. A well-known example is Château Gruaud Larose, which changed the format of its bottle during the 70s and returned to a classic Bordeaux bottle format during the 1980s.

As you can see on this photo/collage above, which is an example of the evolution of the bottle and the label of Chateau Gruaud Larose in a 100 years timeline, the label has evolved and the bottle shape too.

Too fully understand the reason why, it is important to specify that in 1867, Chateau Gruaud Larose was divided in half between 2 families, Baron Sarget and the Bethmann family descendants, who run the divided estate for about 50 years, both producing their own wine at Chateau Gruaud Larose, but under different labels, respectively

  • Chateau Gruaud Larose - Sarget

  • Chateau Gruaud Larose Faure Bethmann
Chateau Gruaud Larose experienced a renaissance when the Cordier Family purchased the shares of Baron Sarget in 1917, then bought the remaining shares from the Bethmann family in 1935, putting back both halves together and bringing back Gruaud Larose to its initial state and glory, and renaming it "Chateau Gruaud Larose" on the label from the 1935 vintage going forward.

This explains the differences on the labels in the collage above, with respectively
  • the apparition of the Cordier family logo on the vintage 1916 (when they bought the estate in 1917, the vintage 1916 was still in barrels and therefore not bottled yet)
  • the name of "Gruaud Larose Faure Bethmann" on the vintage 1918 and 1928 (still owner of half of the Chateau until 1935)
  • the name of "Gruaud Larose Sarget" on the vintage 1925 (which the Cordier family didn't change until 1935, when they reunified the Chateau under its initial name after buying the remaining shares)  

But, the opposite is also true, as some Chateaux, which used the classic Bordeaux bottle shape back then, may have changed it in more recent years for both aesthetics and security purposes by engraving the bottles, adopting a darker, thicker and heavier glass and/or a different bottle shape with broader shoulder for example (resembling more a Napa wine bottle than a classic Bordeaux bottle). 

Other Important details to inspect at first glance

The age, color and thickness of the glass also has a great importance, and it is necessary to ensure that the quality of the glass and its color correspond to the time of the wine (the vintage but also the period).

The dots, codes, markings or engraving on the glass left by a specific mold or specifically added by the manufacturer at the request of Chateau.  Make sure that the bottle does not bear glass codes which would not or could not have been applied at the time of the vintage. 

Also, the depth of the punt (the bottle's hole at the bottom) is also a good indication its authenticity, as the bottle’s punt differs depending if the bottle has been hand-blown or depending on the time and period of the mold has been used (and may have been changed for different mold over time), or if it has been manufactured. 

Nowadays, many glass manufacturers propose to the Chateaux/producers to engrave or laser print the name of the Chateau, or their name or a code (or any other inscriptions) embedded atop or within the glass of the bottle (on the shoulder or at the bottom of the bottle) making it almost impossible to imitate (or at least very difficult). 

So, some of the questions about the overall conditions of a bottle will include the following ones (but not only): 

  • Does the bottle, capsule and label(s) look correct and in conditions reflecting the age of the wine and  the vintage? 
For an old wine/vintage (25-30 years old and older or let say 1990 and older): 

  • Does the bottle look too new for the vintage? (i.e. thicker glass than usual for this vintage or shaped from a recent mold or manufactured rather than hand-blown or from an older type of mold or carrying wrong mold codes, etc...) 

  • Wrong glass color for the vintage? (until the late 70s, in the Rhone valley, for Jaboulet La Chapelle for example, bottles were brown rather than being green) 

  • Does it have the correct markings and/or engraving for this vintage? 

  • Does the depth of the punt correspond to the vintage? (hand-blown bottle and old mold bottle have deeper punt than more recent mold or manufactured bottle) 

For a young wine/vintage (20-25 years old and younger – or let say 1998 and younger): 

If not from an Original Wooden Case (OWC) or Original Carton Box (OCB), and the overall bottle conditions are not pristine, you might want to investigate what happens: 

  • Poor storage conditions? Been exposed to cold or heat? Too humid or too dry? Temperatures and humidity levels oscillations? 

  • Already been shipped several times to several destinations? Problems during transit and/or shipping? Transported in non-reefer container? Roughed around during transportation? Etc… 
  • Previously owned several times? and passed from one owner to the next frequently? Poorly handled?  

The list of questions above is non-exhaustive and many other questions could be added to it, yet it is just for you to get an idea of the type of questions you should ask yourself when inspecting the overall condition of a bottle at first glance. 

Chateau Latour 1945 - Wine Level - By and for ©LeDomduVin 2018

7.2 The Wine Level 

After the overall bottle conditions, most of you will (understandably) go directly to the capsule then the label(s), yet (in my opinion) the level of the wine in the bottle (also called “Ullage” or “headspace”) is usually the most obvious to check at first glance.

Meaning that when you see a bottle for the first time, at first glance (and without going into details or touching it) your eyes inspect automatically (and instinctively with experience) the shape of the bottle and some of its details, but also the level of the wine, as it is usually a clear visual key clue that can help define if the level is acceptable for the vintage or if the bottle has been tampered with and/or eventually if it is a real or a fake bottle, especially for older vintages. (i.e. Top neck / In Neck for a very old bottle is definitely suspicious, and a clear indication that there is something fishy with the bottle without even looking at the capsule and/or the label(s)).  

For an old wine/vintage (25-30 years old and older or let say 1990 and older): 

Despite indicating if fake and tampered with or not, the wine level is a good indication of the wine’s health and conditions: the lower the level, the higher the risk of deterioration (e.g. aging too prematurely) and oxidation of the wine. Yet, even if stored in the most ideal conditions, wine slowly evaporates through the cork, and thus, it is normal, even expected, that a 50-years-old bottle will have a significant lower level than a current vintage of the same wine. 

Therefore, (and unless it has been reconditioned at the Chateau and the wine level has been top-up, and a certificate or a confirmation from the Chateau is available as proof of it),  any old wine (usually anything older than 30 years old or let say 1990 and older) that has not dropped level (at least slightly) is “a priori” suspicious. And even if one can have nice surprises of a high level when wines have been perfectly preserved (usually when coming straight from the property’s cellar – Ex-Chateau – or directly from a Négociant’s cellar who never touched it since he/she received it from the Chateau years ago, or eventually from a careful private collector), most wines of 30 years and older will have experienced a level drop due to many factors.  

In fact, most old vintage wines/bottles in the current market have been sold and traveled around the planet several times, and therefore have been exposed to various random and hazardous  handling, transportation and storage conditions, subject to temperature and humidity levels variations and oscillations, usually leading to a wine level drop in the bottle from the original fill level (atop of the natural evaporation very slowly occurring via the air exchange through the permeable cork). Therefore, no 30 years old (and older) bottles should be expected to have a high level. 

No matter if the wine is young or old, these various random and hazardous transportation and storage conditions subject to temperature and humidity levels variations and oscillations may cause the cork to move within the neck of the bottle, up (protruding cork – usually due to heat or hot temperatures) or down (depressing cork – usually due to low temperature), or to increase (usually due to wine absorption) or to decrease (eventually becoming dry due to heat or lack of contact with the wine, especially if standing for a long period of time), usually causing seepage or even leakage (in the case of the 4 stated scenarios), obviously lowering the level and damaging the wine. 

Basically, a 40 years old bottle of Bordeaux (or older), is expected to have a level between the base of the neck and mid-shoulder of the bottle, anything below mid-shoulder could be an indication of poor storage conditions, poor cork conditions due the factors cited above, and thus eventual seepage or leakage, or in extreme case scenario, and especially if the cork does not present any apparent damage, the bottle may have been tampered with and the level lowered via a syringe or a Coravin device. 

For a young wine/vintage (20-25 years old and younger – or let say 1998 and younger): 

The level should normally have only slightly lowered from the original fill level, expecting usually less than 2.5 cm below capsule or cork for vintages from 1993 to 2005 (or 25-13 years old), and less than 1.5cm for vintages younger than 2005, knowing that since the mid-2000s, producers have tried to keep the ullage to a minimum of 0.8cm to 1.2cm max (“High fill”, some being so high, there is only a gap of less than 0.5cm). 

It is abnormal for a young wine/vintage to have a level lower than the base of the neck. If that is the case, you might want to check for eventual seepage or leakage, cork defaults or defectuous cork, or, same as for old wine/vintage, in extreme case, if the bottle have been tampered with and the level lowered via a syringe or a Coravin device through the capsule and cork. 

Chateau Latour 1945 - The Capsule Top - Photo by and for ©LeDomduVin 2018

Chateau Latour 1945 - The Capsule - Photo by and for ©LeDomduVin 2018

7.3 The Capsule (condition, color and markings)

First thing first, the capsule overall conditions must correspond with the origin and age of the bottle: Pristine, tight and new for younger wine/vintage; and slightly corroded, slightly loose and even damaged or nicked for older wine/vintage. 

Therefore, and although it may seem obvious, it is necessary to check the correct match of the wine names. As it has happened that a fake capsule may bear a similar or even totally different name than the one indicated on the label. Not all counterfeiters are smart! 

A fake capsule may present a different name than the wine name, a different vintage, a color and/or letter font that are slightly different than usual, and/or other small details that may differ from the original capsule. Yet, make sure to consult your own references library to check if historical design changes occurred, prior giving your final judgement. 

Also, note that if a bottle has been reconditioned (re-capsuled, re-labelled and/or re-corked, and/or refilled at the Chateau or by the Chateau), the capsule might be newer and therefore slightly different than the original one. There again, it is important to know the property’s historical changes on the bottle (capsule, label(s), cork, bottle, etc…), as well as the history and provenance of the bottle, and request a proof that the bottle has been reconditioned (certificate or else) from the seller, the Négociant or even the chateau directly. 

On metallic capsules, natural corrosion occurs with time due to the temperature and more importantly the high-level of humidity found in most cellars. One can even found calcareous deposit underneath the capsule resembling small friable pieces or powder of white chalk, forming small bumps, but this not an issue. 

Loose capsule, the risk that the capsule might have been removed then replaced by a counterfeiter on an expensive wine or an old wine/vintage is not negligible, more especially when significant sums are at stake. It is therefore necessary to make sure that the capsule is tightly attached to the neck of the bottle, and not loose (especially for young wine/vintage). 

Creases and wrinkles on capsule, more especially if twisted, usually are a clear indication that the capsule may have been tampered with or even removed (then put back - reapplied). It is (usually) abnormal for a young wine/vintage and might be a clear indication that someone may have tampered with the rest of the bottle (label, cork) or even the wine inside (unless the bottles have been capsuled one by one with a manual capsule machine, in that case, and that case only wrinkles on young wine/vintage may happen – I experienced it myself). 

However, it is not necessarily abnormal for an old wine/vintage to have a slightly loose capsule, as it may have happened naturally with time for some older wines/vintages. It may also have become loose unintentionally due to being handled by many owners. Or intentionally as the capsule, instead of being cut, has been removed to inspect the cork and check its authenticity. Yet, you better carefully check and ask the question to the seller (if he knows, as sometimes he/she may not know). 

Moreover, the capsule is usually pressed firmly around the neck of the bottle, either manually with the help of a manual capsule machine (the capsule is put loose on the bottle’s neck, then the neck is manually pushed into a hole in the machine where the capsule is pressed, not difficult but definitely time consuming and sometimes challenging as if you do not have the right technique of how to push the bottle in the hole, you will end up by accidentally wrinkling the capsule), or with a full automatic wine capsule machine). Consequently, the capsule should be tight and molded on the neck shape. 

Either way, wine capsules are never glued, therefore any traces of glue near or (even worst) under the capsule is definitely suspicious. 

You might have already noticed that on some bottles, the capsule comes with 2 tiny holes on the top right above the cork, but do not be alarmed as these holes (or perforations) have nothing to do with counterfeit or fake or even someone who may have tampered with the bottle or the wine. 

As Dr. Vinny would say: “Those tiny holes (or perforations) just act as a vent to allow air to escape when the capsule is put on. They’re meant to provide a tighter, wrinkle-free fit.” Especially when bottled with bottling chain machine. 

Yet, of course, it is important to verify these holes and make sure that the capsule has not been not pierced instead. In fact, if there is an almost indiscernible hole on the capsule top (other than the capsule being damaged or nicked) tinier than these 2 perforations in comparison (if any), it is a sure sign that the level may have been tampered with by means of a syringe (either lowered or raised compared to its origin fill). 

Chateau Latour 1945 - The Cork and markings on the cork - Photo by and for ©LeDomduVin 2018

7.4 The Cork (condition and markings)

While checking the level and the capsule, you should also check the cork.

 As stated above, if the markings on the capsule do not correspond to the name, provenance and age of the wine, you might want to ask the seller to cut the capsule to check the cork markings and check its conditions and more particularly its authenticity. 

Corks are usually branded, either with hot-red iron stamps or claws or laser printed with cork laser branding technology, rather than being inked (which could eventually affect the wine taste). Therefore, a cork showing ink markings is probably a fake cork. 

And obviously, the cork should bear the same property name, vintage and AOC of provenance as on the label (and the capsule). If not, then it is definitely a fake or a counterfeit wine. 

As for the capsule and the label, if a bottle has been reconditioned (re-capsuled, re-labelled and/or re-corked, and/or refilled at the Chateau or by the Chateau), the cork might be newer and therefore slightly different than the original one. Like for the capsule and label, and I won’t stress it enough, it is important to know the property’s historical changes on the bottle (capsule, label(s), cork, bottle, etc…), as well as the history and provenance of the bottle, and request a proof that the bottle has been reconditioned (certificate or else) from the seller, the Négociant or even the chateau directly. 

In any case, if the bottle has been reconditioned, the cork is usually the best way to find out, as the markings on the cork will state, for example, “Rebouchonné au Chateau en {xxxx}”, meaning re-corked at the property that {year}. 

If the markings of the cork are partly or entirely unreadable due to the age of the bottle, then this is not necessarily a problem; yet, better inspect the cork with a magnifier to make sure is due to the effect of time and have not been done intentionally. Check for certain parts of the markings and compare them with pictures of the same wine (and same vintage if possible) from your records/references library to confirm the authenticity of the cork. 

If the cork has no markings whatsoever for a wine that usually have some, there again you might be in presence of a fake or counterfeit bottle. 

Notorious Chateaux and Domaines take a lot of pride to select the best quality cork in the market as a closure for their precious wine. The corks are usually whole, bear barely no asperities or defaults, and measure about 5.5cm to 5.8cm in length. So, if you open a Bordeaux “Grand Cru Classé” or a “Grand Cru” from Burgundy, and the cork is made of agglomerated cork (usually made of granulated cork pieces glued together with food contact approved glue to bind them together), then it is surely a fake. 

After decades in a bottle, the cork will show some deterioration, and eventually decay, it might still be solid and strong, or it might be weak and friable, or, if in between, might be dry and hard on the parts not in contact with the wine and might present some friability at the bottom (usually breaking in two parts (at least) when you open it. But that has nothing to do with fakes or counterfeits. On the contrary, counterfeiters usually put corks that may not correspond to the age of the wine or not present the deterioration a cork that age should have (more especially for 30 old wines and older). 

Chateau Latour 1945 - The label (1/2) - Photo by and for ©LeDomduVin 2018

Chateau Latour 1945 - The label (2/2) - Photo by and for ©LeDomduVin 2018

7.5 The label(s) (condition, color, font, paper, drawing, logo, details)

Some counterfeited labels are incredibly well made and extremely hard to spot unless scrutinized very carefully with a magnifier and/or blue light (ultraviolet) and even a ruler for some of them. 

Counterfeited labels came in various ways: either too young or too old for the vintage, not made with the correct paper or the same technique, awkwardly disguised or purposely damaged to make the label look older or corresponding more to the age of the wine, etc… 

However, if the label presents obvious variations, like different color, letter font(s), picture, drawing or logo, or if the label(s) is glued in a crooked way, obviously coarsely stained or appears seemingly glued, then you might be in a presence of a counterfeit or fake bottle. 

That said, it happens sometimes that some amateurs may have awkwardly glued a label fallen in his cellar, so this specific case scenario is to be determined during the examination of the label and cannot be completely decisive in your final judgement. 

However, glue traces, patches or tears around the sides and corners of the label are not normal and, although, it might not necessarily be a fake, it usually signifies that the original or a different label has been re-glued improperly and definitely not in a professional manner, thus raising questions and suspicions on how it was handled by its previous owner and/or in which conditions it was previously stored. 

If the label is too damaged (naturally or intentionally) or non-existent, the wine authenticator reserves the right (with the agreement of the seller of course) to cut the capsule to check the markings on cork, and thus verify its authenticity. 

Here again, if a bottle has been reconditioned (re-capsuled, re-labelled and/or re-corked, and/or refilled at the Chateau or by the Chateau), the label(s) might be newer and therefore slightly different than the original one. 

Like for the capsule, and I won’t stress it enough, it is important to know the property’s historical changes on the bottle (capsule, label(s), cork, bottle, etc…), as well as the history and provenance of the bottle, and request a proof that the bottle has been reconditioned (certificate or else) from the seller, the Négociant or even the chateau directly. 

For old bottles and old vintages, the label(s) MUST be defaced with a marker or a cutter. More especially for top tier and expensive wines and/or any other wines that may have a value on the grey or the black market, to prevent from counterfeiters to retrieve them and reuse them. You may not understand the word "deface" for a wine label (I also often say "disfiguring" the bottle). Still don't know what I am talking about? No? Well, the following 2 videos will teach you how to deface/disfigure a bottle of wine.

No full bottles of expensive wines were armed or defaced in the following video... 😉

LeDomduVin: Defacing a label of Chateau Latour 1982

LeDomduVin: Defacing labels of expensive bottles of Bordeaux wines (video 1/2)

Let's go back to the bottle and check the color and the sediments.

Chateau Latour 1945 - The color (1/2) - by and for ©LeDomduVin 2018

Chateau Latour 1945 - The color (2/2) - by and for ©LeDomduVin 2018

7.6. The color 

It might be very important for some people, but color and sediments are also very important when inspecting a bottle. 

The color is a clear indication of the conditions and health of the wine as, while aging, red wine usually goes from ruby red or purple with pinkish hue to a darker (or lighter in some case) rusty, brownish color with brick red nuances or hue; and most white goes from light to medium deep yellow to a deeper, darker yellow with times. Sweet wine can even look dark whisky or cognac-like colors and nuances the older they get. 

This aging phenomenon of color changing is due partly to the exchange with the oxygen through the permeable cork and the amount of tannins contained in the wine. The reaction of tannins and anthocyanins with the phenolic compound catechins creates another class of tannins known as pigmented tannins which influence the color of red wine (*). More present in red wines as tannins and anthocyanins are naturally present in the grape skin and thus transfer to the wine from skin contact during the fermentation. Hence, it is recommended to store wine bottle on their side to prevent the cork to dry and too much air to get into the bottle, which will have an immediate and undesirable effect on the pigments, basically the color (but also the taste), of the wine if in excess (that is why you should never store you bottle standing up). Too much light will also affect the color of the wine with time (more especially if under bright and/or neon lights). 

Therefore, if the color is too young for an old vintage, then it might be a fake (or a bottle that has been extremely well preserved in the most ideal conditions, never seen the light and never been touched). On the opposite, if the color seems to old for a young vintage, then it might not be necessary a fake, but it is a clear signal that the bottle has a problem and that the wine might not be as good as expected. The bottle may have receive a thermic shock: usually sudden extreme heat or exposure to hot temperatures for a certain period of time, which have cooked the wine and make it age too prematurely; or extreme cold or exposure to cold temperatures for a certain period of time, which may have shocked the wine and clearly destabilized and damaged its internal components. 

As wine will age differently and more or less rapidly depending on various factors: its surroundings, like the environment (lights, odors, air, outside, inside), storage conditions (constant temperatures and humidity level, natural ventilation), transportation conditions (reefer truck or container, train, plane, etc…); but also depending on the single grape variety or the blend of grapes varieties it is made of, as well as its intrinsic components (residues, tannins, pigments, phenol, alcohol, sugar content, etc…), it is difficult to define an ageing time line for wine. More especially that it will also differ due to the wine making process and style of the wine…. (but I will leave that for another post that specific and lengthy subject). 

Chateau Latour 1945 - Color and Sediments (1/3) by and for ©LeDomduVin 2018 

Chateau Latour 1945 - Color and Sediments (2/3) by and for ©LeDomduVin 2018 

Chateau Latour 1945 - Color and Sediments (3/3) by and for ©LeDomduVin 2018 

7.7 The sediments 

The sediments are also very important. As the wine ages in the bottle, the grape components like the pigments of the grapes transferred to the wine (which gives its color) will link with the pigmented tannins of the wines, a reaction called the polymer chain, to form the polymeric tannins, giving the wine this brick red hue as it ages in the bottle. The polymer chain is an aging reaction of the wine during which these pigments also age and decompose with time, forming with the sediments (and other wine components and residues) in suspension into the wine, the sedimentation that will slowly fall to the side (if on the side) or to the bottom of the bottle as the wine ages. 

Therefore, it might just be a detail for some of you, but know that usually, and especially if the wine did not undergo any fining or filtration prior bottling, old wines always have a minimum of sediments (depending on how old the wine is too, less than 20 years old wine tend to have less or barely none, older than 30 years old are more likely to have more). These sediments are basically made of yeast cells, residues of grape solids during the fermentation (stems, seeds, skin), eventually “tartrates” (tartaric acid crystals), and any other residues resulting from the winemaking process. 

So, if you inspect a bottle of Mouton Rothschild from the 80s (1982 for example), or DRC from the 60s and there are no sediments whatsoever, then it is definitely a fake bottle. 

Chateau Latour 1945 - The Punt of the Bottle - Photo by and for ©LeDomduVin 2018

7.8 The punt (or “le cul de la bouteille” as we say in French) 

While you’re checking the color and the sediments, you should also have a look at the “punt” or the bottom of the bottle, as they are quite a few things to check there: 

The marking “75cl”: represents the volume of wine contained in the bottle, which is generally engraved on the side of the bottle (at the bottom) or in the punt (supposedly on bottles post-1930, which is not always the case as some bottles may not have any engraving at all, in fact it depends of the mold they have been made with and at which period, for example during WWII, when some bottles were hand-blown and not made necessarily out of a mold). 

Next to “75cl”, some bottles may also have a 2 digits number followed by “mm”, like “55mm”, for example. Now that’s an interesting number as it may be obvious for bottle’s makers and producers, but I bet most people have no clue what it is. Obviously, it is a measurement, but a measurement of what? Do you know? No? What comes first to your mind? The diameter at the bottom of the bottle? No, too big, the diameter of a standard Bordeaux bottle is only about 7-7.5mm (up to 8 depending on the thickness of the glass) and about 7.5-8.5mm for Burgundy bottle or even up to 10mm for some Champagne bottle. The length of the bottle’s neck? No, too small as well, in general. 

The length of the cork? It could have been, as good quality cork for Bordeaux wines are about 5.5 to 5.8mm, but the number is not “5.5mm”, but “55mm” (curious common mistake that most people want to see a period in between, maybe the mind cannot grasp the concept of 55mm in a bottle of wine…). Still no clue? Ok, let me tell you, and show you visually (further down) via a drawing, it will be easier to understand.

Details of a Bordeaux Bottle by ©LeDomduVin 2018

55mm: this metric measurement represents the gap length that needs to be left empty, between the top of the bottle and the top of the wine fill level to obtain exactly 75cl of wine in the bottle. This virtual limit depends on the shape of the bottle (volume, width, height, diameter and thickness of the glass), and therefore you might be able to find bottles engraved with 58mm, some 6.2mm or even 6.8mm. It will make more sense to you by looking at this drawing and the pictures. (I bet learned something today by reading these last few lines…) 

The dots: most bottles have a series of small dots engraved at the bottom side of the bottle. For those of you who might wonder, these dots are not "brail" codes for blind people to read the bottle. These dots are marks or codes left by the mold that has been used to make the bottle and therefore necessary for the glass bottle producers (and wine producer too). They are used to identify the type of mold that has been used to shape the bottle and therefore allow them to easily retrieve and define which bottles have been made with/from which mold (and eventually reject defectuous bottle and/or mold).  

Paul Jaboulet "La Chapelle" bottle format comparison - Photo by and for ©LeDomduVin 2018

7.9 The bottle format (shape and volume or size if you prefer) 

It may appear stupid, but the format is also very important, as not all wineries produce all formats. The most common formats for most wineries are usually the regular bottle (750ml) and the magnum (1.5L). Some wineries also produce some half bottles (375ml), but not that many overall, and fewer wineries produce double magnum (3L).

Any size above (i.e. 4.5L, 5L, 6L, 9L, 12L, 15L, 18L and 24L) are super rare and usually bear a bottle serial number (e.g. 156/200 or bottle number 156 of 200 produced).  If the bottle serial number is not stated on the label, a code has usually been laser-printed or embedded or engraved within the glass of the bottle, commonly at the bottom or on the side of the bottle, to trace its provenance and authenticity. 

5L format was apparently only introduced to Bordeaux in 1945, prior to that year they were 4.5L, but there again not many chateau were bottling under that format. Therefore, be aware of imitations in these large formats. 

Like for the capsule, label, and cork, and I won’t stress it enough again, it is important to know the property’s historical changes on the bottle (capsule, label(s), cork, bottle, etc…), as well as the history and provenance of the bottle, and it also important to know how many large formats were produced at that time. In doubts, contact the seller, the Négociant or even the chateau directly to get an answer. 

The color and thickness of the glass also has a great importance, and it is necessary to ensure that the quality of the glass and its color correspond to the time of the wine (the vintage but also the period).

Talking about format historical changes, let's take for example for Paul Jaboulet Hermitage "La Chapelle", on the picture above, the vintage 1978 is compared with the vintage 1990. Looking closely at the picture, you will realize that: 

1978 bottle is smaller than 1990 

1978 is a 730ml bottle, while the 1990 is a 750ml bottle 

1978 color of the glass is brown, while the 1990 is green 

1978 color and font of the letters on the label are also slightly different from the 1990 label 

Both bottles are genuine, it is just that the owners of Paul Jaboulet Ainé have changed the color of the glass (from brown or brownish light green to green) and format (from 730ml to 750ml) they used for their bottles, in the late 70s or early 80s. Difficult to say, as I'm always surprised when I see bottles of early 60s and 70s in 750ml format (which does not make much sense, unless they went from 750ml to 730ml and back to 750ml.... never received a confirmation... so can't say it is a fact...).

In any case be careful of bottle formats that do not exist and/or were never produced or not corresponding to the age of the bottle, like a 5L format for a Bordeaux bottle prior 1945. Or like for Jaboulet, 1975 and 1978 are 730 ml, not 750 ml, and the color of the glass should be brownish-lightship green, not green like newer vintage, etc....

7.10 The vintage 

Last point, but not least, the vintage, there again, like for the formats, not all the vintages are produced by all wineries. Some vintages may have not been produced due to 

The weather conditions (e.g. in Bordeaux, only few wineries were able to produce this vintage due to a terrible frost in April 1991 (the coldest in records since 1945, which devastated most of Bordeaux vineyards, destroying most of the young buds, then heavy rain, which drench the vineyards during the harvest time throughout September and October…). Those who could declassified their wine or sold it in bulk for distillation or other purposes. 

Due to poor weather and/or grapes quality is not good enough to produce the “Grand Vin” (mostly due to weather conditions here again) and the "Grand Vin" was not produced, that is the case for Chateau d’Yquem, which did not produce vintages like 1910, 1915, 1930, 1951, 1952, 1964, 1972, 1974, 1992 and 2012.. (if I remember well) and therefore, if you happen to find one bottle of one these nonexistent vintages in the market, it is a fake... 

Some vintages cannot exist simply because they were not made by the producer as he/she was not the owner of the property yet or didn’t make wine from specific parcel or "Clos" or "Cru" prior a certain date. 

So for the last time, like for the capsule, the label, the cork and the bottle format, and I won’t stress it enough again, it is important to know the property’s historical changes on the bottle (capsule, label(s), cork, bottle, etc…), as well as the history and provenance of the bottle, as well as the format and most importantly the vintages that have not been produced. In doubts, contact the seller, the Négociant or even the chateau directly to get an answer. 

Engravings example on bottles of Petrus - In the punt for the 1990 vintage and on the shoulder for the 1998 vintage
Photo taken by Dominique Noel (a.k.a. LeDomduVin) for ©LeDomduVin 2018

7.11 The engraving and codes

Some Chateaux and wineries like Petrus and Haut-Brion (and many others) boast some engravings on their bottles. But as you see on the picture above, for Petrus for example, the engraving of the brand "PETRUS" is not at the same place on the bottle depending on the vintage. In the punt of the bottle for the 1990 vintage and on the shoulder of the bottle for the 1998 vintage, which could be tricky for some people who may not know and/or may not check the punt carefully enough.

These bottles with the brand and/or logo engraved on them are highly valuable on the grey and the black market, fetching high prices just for the empty bottle, understandably more if still with the label on it.

Therefore, like we said earlier for the labels, for old bottles and old vintages, the label(s) MUST be defaced, but more importantly the engraved bottle(s) MUST ABSOLUTELY be destroyed, smashed to pieces to make them unrecognizable and unusable. More especially for top tier and expensive wines and/or any other wines that may have a value on the grey or the black market, to prevent from counterfeiters to retrieve them and reuse them. 

You may not have understood earlier the word "deface" for a wine label or "disfiguring"for a bottle, but you surely understand what "destroyed" and "smashed to pieces" means for an engraved bottles!!! No? Yes?  Still don't know what I am talking about? No? Well, the following video will show you how to smash a bottle of wine.  

No full bottle of Petrus or Haut-Brion were armed in the following video... 😉

LeDomduVin: Defacing labels and smashing expensive bottles of Bordeaux wines (video 2/2)

💥Work still progress.... to be finished soon💥

7.12 The technologies 

Nowadays technologies to prevent against fake, imitation and counterfeit bottles have made counterfeiting more difficult and counterfeiters scratch their heads. Yet the market is still flooded with counterfeits, probably even more than 10 to 20 years ago, as it has become so lucrative. So, to discourage counterfeiters, an increasing number of Chateaux in Bordeaux and Domaines in Burgundy (and in other regions and countries too) use various ingenious systems mixing different types of technologies and other anti-counterfeiting techniques, including micro-printed labels, holograms, “ultra-white” label paper fluorescent under blue light, as well as high-tech etching printing or engraving methods on labels and bottles instead of the usual plate press printed label with differentiation of colors, and the now common embedded microchips to digitally authenticate the wine’s provenance. 

💥Work still progress.... to be finished soon💥

7. Conclusion 

To confirm the authenticity of a bottle of wine, you must carefully inspect, the overall bottle conditions, the capsule, the cork (if you can and with the seller approval of course), the label(s) 

holograms placed randomly on the wine label. Other areas, to signify the reclamation and relabeling at the chateau, put a code engraved on the bottle (see photo). Finally, it goes without saying that certain "aberrations" immediately put the chip in the ear of our bloodhounds: a non-existent bottle format for such vintage or more generally a non-existent vintage attributed to a domain! 

💥Work still progress.... to be finished soon💥

Santé! Cheers!

LeDomduVin a.k.a Dominique Noel
Sommelier | Wine Quality Control Director | Wine Buyer | Market Analyst

#fakeandcounterfeitwines #cluesandadvises #fakewines #counterfeitwines #imitations #clues #advises #qualitycontrol #wineinspection #wineauthentication #authentication #fraudulentwines #wine #vin #vino #wein #capsule #cork #label #ledomduvin #wineknowledge #wineeducation #stafftraining @ledomduvin #dominiquenoel

All pictures taken by Dominique Noel by and for ©LeDomduVin 2018 subject to copyright