Earlier this month, Xinshi Li, president of the Chinese Academy of Inspection and Quarantine, described counterfeit wine as a “very serious” problem in the country. Li claimed that half or more of the bottles of purported Château Lafite sold in China are probably made on boats bobbing off the coast of China, rather than in the immaculate vineyards of Bordeaux.
Chinese officials have been working with their European counterparts, especially those in France, to cut down on counterfeit wines. China is currently the world’s largest importer of Bordeaux as well as consumer of red wine in general. There’s a domestic interest in curbing counterfeits: Chinese investors who have been buying up wine estates in France, as well as making their own varietals on the mainland, see the counterfeiters as a threat too.
Counterfeiters typically buy empty bottles of well-known brands and refill and re-cork them. (One method is to combine alcohol with watermelon rinds and grape juice.) Lafites are especially popular for faking because of their price—some say that there are more cases of 1982 Lafite, which can cost more than $10,000, in China than were ever produced.
Some measures are being taken. Last year, China registered Champagne as an official label, making it illegal for wine not produced in the region to market itself as Champagne. New phone apps can trace a wine’s origin. And Domaines Barons de Rothschild, the owner of the Château Lafite label, has started installing tamper-proof tags on its bottles.
But what Lafite and other brands have even more trouble with is that Chinese in second- and third-tier cities, who make up the bulk of new wine drinkers in the country, just don’t know the difference between luxury and generic brands. Last year, Christophe Salin, head of Domaines Barons de Rothschild, said its biggest problem wasn’t so much counterfeit wine but Chinese sellers marketing bottles with similar names like “Legende Lafite” or “Châtelet Lafite.”