Wine Skulduggery – Global Scandals in the Wine World

Following the recent scandals about horse meat found in ‘beef’ burgers and, worse, ‘calimari’ made with pig rectum, we thought we’d have a look at some oh-so-shocking scandals in the global wine industry from dubious labelling, to the wrong wine in the bottle and the addition of ‘special’ ingredients.

Take for example the 1985 diethylene glycol wine scandal in Austria which embroiled a small number of wine producers who thought they’d be clever and add this toxic substance (which incidentally is also a primary ingredient of some types of antifreeze, a fact the media loved!) to their wines to make them taste sweeter and more full-bodied. They were discovered when the adulterated wine was sent to Germany and (again illegally) blended into German wines – German quality control labs then picked up the diethylene glycol and, as they don’t say in France, le vin hit the fan. All in all though it was probably a good thing for the Austrian wine industry long term. Short term of course it was a total disaster since the mere suggestion of ‘antifreeze’ in Austrian wine was enough to cause a complete collapse of wine exports.  But it did force the industry to take a good, long, hard look in the mirror and to focus production on other types of wine, moving away from sweet wines towards dry white wines and targeting a higher market segment.

Anti Freeze

Nobody was hurt by the Austrian tampering but the same can’t be said of a similar, but lethal, scandal which came to light in Italy in 1986. At least twenty three people died when they drank Odore Barbera, a wine from the North of Italy dubbed ‘poison plonk’ by TIME magazine, which was contaminated with methyl alcohol  (another ingredient of antifreeze!).


But this skulduggery is not confined to the annals of time. As recently as 2010 there was a ‘fake’ Pinot Noir scandal in the US. French wholesalers, Sieur d’Arques,  sold ‘Pinot Noir’ to American distributors, E&J Gallo Winery which they had bought from Ducasse Wine Merchants. Except that it wasn’t Pinot Noir at all it was a blend of Merlot and Syrah (Shiraz). Pinot Noir is difficult to do well and many winemakers bolster their wine by adding less expensive, more robust Merlot and Syrah, although the US law requires that wine sold as being from a single varietal is at least 75% from the grape on the label (in Europe it must be at least 85%).  An audit of Ducasse Wine Merchants raised suspicions; the firm was buying Pinot Noir at 60% of the going rate and (school boy error) in quantities that exceeded the production level of the region.

The Austrians and Italians are not alone in adulterating wine. There is a wine spread practice of ‘watering down’ wine, know as Jesus units, generally to bring down the alcohol level. It’s also not unheard of to find that an ‘exclusive’ wine is in fact not 100% the real McCoy but has been blended with other less prestigious wines. Burgundy wines for example have been analysed to reveal they have been blended with less expensive red wines; in 2006 Vins Georges Duboeuf was found guilty of just that, blending in lower grade wine with much better-quality crus and labelling it Cru Beaujolais.

Jesus Units

Scandals aren’t confined to the old world, it seems everyone is in on the game. There have been reported cases in Asia of Lafit or Petrus which turned out to be wine from Gaochang or Shandong Province. But probably the biggest ‘fake’ scandal in Asia was between 2007 -2010 when 400,000 bottles of Mont Tauch Fitou AOC were imported, supposedly from France. Suspicions were raised by the Mont Tauch team in Asia when they heard reports of it being sold at an inexplicably low price – it turned out to be South American bulk wine in very well faked packaging!Fake!

Sources and further reading:

Wikipedia – Diethylene Glycol Wine Scandal

Wikipedia – Pinot Noir passing off controversy

Food – Pig rectum calamari

Food – Horse meat found in Tesco burgers

Wikipedia – Examples of illegal blending

Inside – The missing ingredient in wine

Wine – Poison Plonk

The Drinks Business – Top 10 wine scandals


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