Three wine adulterations

This is about the addition of a substance to wine and has nothing to do with extra-marital affairs. It’s as modern as Rudy Kurniawan, who was arrested in 2012 for selling fake high-end wines at auction, and as old as Pliny the Elder who complained 2000 years ago, “not even our nobility ever enjoys wines that are genuine.”

I have briefly tackled three adulterates: water, alcohol and wine.

Despite being illegal, discreet water addition was practised until the early eighties. (Photo: Hosepipe ban UK website)

Water

One of the most expensive wines ever sold, a 1787 Château Lafite with Thomas Jefferson’s initials engraved on the bottle, was eventually proved to be a fake.

Adding water to wine, known as humidification, is one of the oldest methods of adulteration. It can, of course, make high acid or excessively strong-flavoured wine more palatable, although profit is the main motive for water addition. Despite being illegal, discreet water addition was practised until the early eighties when detection became a simple matter of measuring fluoride levels in wine. The largely high-acid hybrid wines of the day were occasionally improved with a little extra water, although it is no coincidence that the quality of New Zealand wines jumped once the practice ceased.

At first illegal, the practice was eventually sanctioned by the Portuguese government and became lawful. (Photo: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table website)

Alcohol

Port has been fortified with the addition of alcohol since the 18th century. Higher alcohol levels made the wine more stable and less likely to become oxidised when shipped overseas, largely to Britain. At first illegal, the practice was eventually sanctioned by the Portuguese government and became lawful. Fortification has always been legal in New Zealand, although few fortified wines are made today (when I joined the industry in 1973 around 85% of local wines were fortified).

In New Zealand and Australia, it is legal to add up to 15% of another variety, vintage or region. (Photo: Twitter @BoutinotRhone)

Wine

Bordeaux has a long history of adulteration from as early as the 18th century when wine was imported in bulk from Spain, or warmer growing areas in southern France, to “beef up” the wines of Bordeaux in order to meet market demand for richer more flavoursome reds. In New Zealand and Australia, it is legal to add up to 15% of another variety, vintage or region. The significant price differential between bulk New Zealand and Australian grapes makes it both viable and legal to blend up to 15% of the cheaper wine when price matters more than quality.

One of the most expensive wines ever sold, a 1787 Château Lafite with Thomas Jefferson’s initials engraved on the bottle, was eventually proved to be a fake.

One thought on “Three wine adulterations”

  1. James says:

    Since 2017, it has been legal in Australia to add water to high sugar juices to reduce the potential alcohol to 13.5%.
    Depending on the initial ripeness, this could easily equate to a water addition in excess of 10% of the original juice volume.
    You could argue that the winemaker is only replacing that water lost via dehydration of the grape on the vine which caused the excessive sugar concentration in the first place?
    Apparently this practice is legal in several countries including USA.

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