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What’s in a Wine Name?

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There’s nothing like a nice cool glass of rosé on a balmy summers evening. Whether you’re an adventurous type who likes to try a new wine every time or you have your go-to favourites, you put your trust in producers and retailers to deliver the products that they claim to be – but are they? Fraud in the food and beverage industry is becoming an all too common problem, whether it’s lower quality honey claiming to be Manuka, cheap oils passed off as extra virgin olive oil or even horse meat masquerading as beef, they’ve all hit the headlines for the wrong reasons.

Some food fakery is easier for a consumer to detect than others – glaringly obvious spelling mistakes on packaging is an immediate red flag, but for many consumers the only option is to take products at face value.

Do you really know what you’re sipping this summer?

In response to suggestions of cheap imports being passed off as French wines, the Directorate-General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control (DGCCRF) based in France, undertook a survey to examine wines imported into France, especially from Spain.

For French wine producers that lack protected geographical indication (Indication Géographique Protégée-IGP) status, competition can be tough. Spanish producers are challenging them, especially in varietal entry level wines. As such, temptation exists to pass off cheaper Spanish imports under their own brands.

Speaking to Le Parisien, Alexandre Chevallier from the DGCCRF said: “We were alerted to the ‘Frenchification’ of Spanish wine at the end of 2015. So, we launched an inquiry at all levels, from producers to importers to restaurants and distributors.”

The survey, launched in 2016, initially targeted wine importers but was then extended to the rest of the industry, including distributers, retailers and cafés, hotels and restaurants. Inspections focussed on verifying traceability of wines and that where wines had been imported or blended with wines from other countries, the labelling correctly reflected this. In total 743 establishments (179 in 2016 and 564 in 2017) were examined.

The report

The study results, which have recently been published showed that startlingly, 22% of the establishments visited in 2016 and 15% of the establishments visited in 2017 were misrepresenting wine origins in some form. Offences included Spanish wines sold in bulk as "French wine" while others were even given French IGP names.

Several cases of note involved volumes of misrepresented wines ranging from 2,000 hectolitres to 34,500 hectolitres (equivalent to 4.6 million bottles!)

Earlier in March 2018, the DGCCRF revealed that 480,000 hectolitres of table wine, totalling many tens of millions of bottles and the equivalent of 15% of Côtes-du-Rhône production, had been passed off as Côtes du Rhône from October 2013 to June 2016, in a scam that affected UK drinkers as well as French.

What is being done to combat wine fraud?

As well as the economic consequences, cases such as these bring the reputation of the industry into disrepute. The DGCCRF have responded firmly by pursuing criminal cases against those in breach, which may result in fines and even custodial sentences.

Much work has been done in the food and wine industry to make fraud detection quicker, cheaper, easier and more definitive. Analytical science techniques are being employed to look at creating “fingerprints” for wines from different areas.

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) has been used in wine screening across Western Europe very successfully to authenticate and protect wines and is also showing good results in Hungary where the Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture are striving to protect its valuable wine industry.

In the U.S., scientists have been looking at multi-elemental profiling of macro, micro, and trace elements for determination of authenticity using mass spectrometry and atomic emission spectroscopy-based techniques. Wine prices from premises that are relatively close together can vary dramatically and it is therefore imperative that precise locations and not just the grape variety and country can be determined.

In the future, routine identification of wine origins may be a whole lot easier and hopefully will make fraudsters think twice.