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Italian Authorities Battle Wine Counterfeits

If you think only high-end wines are targeted by criminals, think again

Jacopo Mazzeo By January 12, 2022
various blurry bottle neck labels
Photo illustration by Pix

A few minutes into Sour Grapes, a 2016 documentary based on the story of Indonesian wine fraudster Rudi Kurniawan, the film shows scenes of auction houses, shots of expensive bottles, and bidders sipping on fine wine. 

As the film reveals, investment-worthy first-growth Bordeaux and top-class Burgundy are a highly attractive target for counterfeiters. Away from the glamour of auction houses, however, it’s ordinary wines that fight a daily battle against illicit imitations.

Italian denominations such as Chianti, Prosecco, and Amarone are some of the fraudsters’ favorite victims. Earlier this year, Italy’s agricultural trade body Coldiretti announced that fakes cost the country’s wine industry some $1.2 billion a year. In response to the problem, the Italian government even launched a commission whose sole aim is to tackle fake wines, from cheesy Italian-sounding labels to downright counterfeits.

An international effort

Wine fraudsters are rarely afraid of crossing national borders and often involve multiple partners who can help facilitate illicit wine trafficking.

The recent OPSON 2020 operation, conducted by Europol and Interpol, ended earlier this year following over six months of investigations. It targeted trafficking of counterfeit wine, as well as other foods and drinks, and involved actions across 22 countries. An earlier investigation led by the Italian gendarmerie’s anti-fraud department, Carabinieri NAS, named Geminus, resulted in the successful break up of an Italian-Chinese operation that bottled wines with a false indication of origin, including fake Chianti, and sold them across China.

OPSON police confiscating fake wines

OPSON, a joint 2020 Europol and Interpol investigation, targeting counterfeit wine. Photo courtesy of OPSON.

“The irregular use of Italian wine denominations is quite a common issue and it’s a regular occurrence among home winemaking kits,” says wine department manager at Coldiretti, Domenico Bosco, referring to commercial kits that allow people to home-make a range of wine styles by using water, grape juice concentrate, and dried yeast. “Appellations such as Valpolicella, Barolo, Chianti, Amarone, and Soave have all been used improperly.”

According to the association of Chianti producers, one of their most recent success stories was the withdrawal of a Winexpert Vintners “Chianti” wine kit, which is now being sold simply as Sangiovese.

Chianti, Amarone, and Prosecco

Alongside the sale of fraudulent bottles with denominations of origin, Italy’s best known wines face growing threats from Chianti, Amarone, and Prosecco lookalikes.

“Actual counterfeit wine, i.e. wines that fraudulently claim to be a specific label or brand, is not an issue that concerns the American public, at least not as it occurs in other countries,” clarifies Antonio Laspina, executive director of New York’s Italian Trade Agency.

“The great success of some of our wines, however, means that the improper use of our wine denominations is unavoidable.”

Bosco explains that the proliferation of Italian sounding labels initially affected food products only, most notably Parmesan sold as genuine Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, while “in wine, it’s become a serious problem over the past 10 to 15 years, mostly driven by the worldwide success of Prosecco.” The ever-expanding list of Prosecco wannabes includes a Moldovan Crisecco, and a remarkable number of German -seccos, such as Meersecco, Consecco, Prisecco, and Perisecco.

Vito Donatiello, an Italian sommelier who’s been living in China for nearly 20 years, explains that, despite the authorities’ policing efforts, education is key to ensuring that drinkers can enjoy genuine wines. He says that because many Chinese consumers aren’t yet familiar with Italian wines, they are “generally unable to distinguish between a fake Amarone or Chianti and a genuine one.”

Assocamerestero, an association whose goal is to further the interests of Italian businesses beyond national borders, has recently developed a worldwide educational program, dubbed True Italian Taste, to help professionals and wine drinkers avoid the risk of fake Italian products. The project includes a series of four short films featuring Italian sommeliers each focusing on a key Italian wine region.

Nicola Angiuli, president of Italian wine distributor Francoli U.S.A., says that he himself organizes an extensive program of seminars to help customers familiarize themselves with wine regulations. “Some seminars focus on explaining appellations and how they work, and on Italian laws,” he says, while others concentrate on teaching people how to detect typical flavors.

Americans are safe

While education is key, a few simple precautions can help drinkers easily spot a fake. 

Price is often a giveaway, as imposter wines tend to be inexpensive if compared to their genuine counterparts. A careful look at the front and back labels can contribute too, particularly a lack of details or discrepancies between the wine’s declared denomination and its actual origin. Ultimately however, all Italian wine with Denominazione di Origine Controllata,  such as Prosecco, Valpolicella, and Montepulciano D’Abruzzo, and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, including Barolo, Chianti, and Amarone, must carry a government seal, normally found around the bottle’s neck. 

“We try to keep the consumer’s attention high, saying they should look carefully at the label and see if there is something weird such as the lack of the government seal — a non-serial alphanumeric code — which is required by law on any DOC and DOCG wine,” says Bosco.

Fortunately, this isn’t an issue that affects drinkers in the U.S., thanks to vigilant wine buyers and importers. Even so, if anybody is interested in finding out more, it’s now possible, because a number of denominations are developing systems to help drinkers check codes against an official archive, “so if someone drinks an Amarone, they can check that the wine is genuine by entering the code on the Consorzio’s website,” says Bosco.

3 Italian wines worth drinking:

These are genuine versions of some of Italy’s most counterfeited wines.

bottle of Villa Sandi Prosecco Rosé Millesimato 2020

Villa Sandi Prosecco Rosé Millesimato 2020

This was one of the first pink Proseccos to launch earlier this year. It’s got Prosecco’s signature floral and peachy nose, while the addition of a small percentage of Pinot Noir adds a touch of crunchy red fruit as well as the wine’s characteristic millennial pink color. It’s silky yet its fresh, zesty vibrancy makes it an ideal aperitif. Alternatively, it can be mixed with Aperol and a splash of soda for an even fruitier Spritz.

bottle of Corzano e Paterno Terre di Corzano Chianti 2019

Corzano e Paterno Terre di Corzano Chianti 2019

This is made the classic way, by blending Sangiovese with a touch of Canaiolo, which is then aged mostly in large “botti,” or large barrels of Slovenian oak, with just a fraction in smaller, used barrels. Rose petals and bay leaves complement characteristic red cherries and earthy aromas. On the palate, fresh, Mediterranean herbs balance this wine’s succulent fruitiness. It is best enjoyed with pasta dishes that involve an element of meat and mushrooms.

bottle of Brigaldara Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico 2015

Brigaldara Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico 2015

The wine is made with a selection of healthy grape bunches left to dry in the estate’s drying lofts for about 120 days. After vinification, it matures in small barrels for 12 months, followed by two years in larger wooden casks. The nose is led by red cherry, red berries, and dried red fruit aromas, with graceful floral perfumes underneath. Despite Amarone’s characteristic glycerine sensation on the palate — which may give an impression of sweetness — the wine shows freshness thanks to its tannic nature alongside a mild bitterness and a dry finish.