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.
WaterOne 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.
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).
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.