France’s consumer fraud authority confirmed July 9 that over the past two years, unscrupulous wine merchants have passed off as many as 70,000 hectoliters — the equivalent of 10 million bottles — of cheap Spanish wine as more-expensive French rosé. That’s shocking news in a country where protesters have been known to stop tanker trucks with imported wines and empty their contents on the road near the border.
This kind of story plays well in the media, because it reinforces two popular stereotypes: Those crafty French, and the snooty wine snobs who can’t tell the difference between plonk and the good stuff. Snickering aside, it also highlights basic economics and current trends in the production and marketing of wine.
French consumer fraud investigators said they became aware of the “Frenchification” of Spanish wine in late 2015, then began canvassing stores and restaurants to verify the authenticity of wines being sold. They found that 22 percent of the establishments they surveyed were selling Spanish wine that was either fraudulently or misleadingly labeled as French, according to Le Parisien, which broke the story. It is unclear whether any of the fraudulent wine was exported, though the Telegraph of London said investigators think some bottles ended up on British retail shelves. Who knows? Some could have come to the United States as well.
Some wines were falsely noted as “Vin de France,” a generic table wine designation, while some were labeled as coming from a prestigious IGP (protected geographic designation, a new nomenclature for appellation). Others portrayed French-looking chateau or even the fleur-de-lis, the national symbol, on their labels with tiny print revealing the wine’s Spanish or “European” origin. Often these wines were marketed in the section with French rosés and priced accordingly.
Four producers were identified in the investigation, according to the website the Local France. One has been charged and could get two years in prison and a fine of 300,000 euros.
The potential profits are enormous. Spanish rosé sells on the bulk market at about 40 cents per liter, while its French counterpart goes for more than twice that. Restaurants could be especially vulnerable, with by-the-glass programs. Tourists enjoying their pichet of rosé along the boardwalk in Nice or St. Tropez might never suspect they weren’t drinking local.
Here’s how this could happen: That giant sucking sound over the past few years was U.S. consumers discovering they love rosé and buying and drinking as much as they could. Demand soared, and the rosé market boomed, with many more labels appearing on U.S. shelves, and earlier in the year than ever before as brands competed for shelf space. Prices rose, and shippers tried to send as much as they could to take advantage. It takes three or four years for new vineyards to be planted and produce wine, so we tend to get lesser wines to fill in the gap in the inexpensive range that has been created by the inflation.
Wine’s importance to France’s culture and economy has long made it susceptible to fraud. In 2010, a French wine broker was convicted of passing off merlot and syrah as more expensive pinot noir for E&J Gallo’s Red Bicyclette brand. A defense given in court: American consumers didn’t complain.
This year, according to the Telegraph, ordinary table wine was passed off as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and a Bordeaux chateau was caught adding sugar to its 2016 wine. The winery said it was an accident.
There are two lessons for American consumers from this story, and no, one of them is not that the French can’t be trusted. First, read the label, especially the small print, and know the labeling laws. That will help you know whether the winery bottling the wine actually made it.
Second, if you care about the quality and authenticity of the wine you buy, pay attention to importers who deal with family-owned wineries. Be willing to pay a dollar or two more for wine that genuinely expresses its terroir.
So don’t shy away from French rosé, even if it might be difficult to determine whether the wine is properly labeled. We don’t yet know whether any fraudulent wine was imported into the United States. If you are concerned about this scandal, you might look for rosé from the Loire Valley (a less famous region for pink wine) or Italy. Even Spain, which makes some great ones. The United States makes some really tasty pinks, too.
Caveat emptor, after all. Or caveat rosé.
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