China's booming wine market has created an astounding demand for empty bottles of famous wines, with fraudsters paying up to £300 for a good bottle that can be filled with a less celebrated vintage.
Shanghai -- Counterfeiters have begun collecting empty bottles and then refilling them to scam rich Chinese. A particular favourite is Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1982, which sells for over US& 3,325.00 an intact bottle at auction.
"We only collect Lafite and Maotai [China's most famous spirit]," said one Beijing-based bottle dealer, who gave his name was Mr Huang. "We pay in cash and can collect from the seller. We're offering 2,900 yuan (US$ 442.00) for a good vintage bottle of Lafite Rothschild. We'll offer 100 yuan less for the Carruades de Lafite," he added.
Mr Huang said his firm collected empties from bars and restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing and that the run-up to Chinese New Year, in February, was peak season, as counterfeiters targeted wine lovers looking to celebrate in style.
"The bottles need to be in the best condition possible," said another dealer, called Mr Ye, at a Shanghai company. "It is very important.
And I only want genuine bottles, no fakes," he added.
In the past year China has become the world's fastest-growing wine market with legions of millionaires anxious to appear sophisticated.
Last year, a case of Chateau Lafite 2009 sold for US$ 69,250.00 in Hong Kong – three times more than it would have cost in London.
"This is always going to be a danger when people are drinking not out of passion but because they think that fine wine is what they think they should be seen drinking," said Adam Bilbey at the Hong Kong offices of Berry Bros and Rudd. The wine dealer estimates that China now accounts for 65 per cent of its sales.
"We have definitely opened a bottle that was a fake," said Mr Bilbey. "Inside, there was a big hefty red from the south of France. Not a bad wine, actually, but not what it was supposed to be." He predicted that the increasing prevalence of wine forgeries would "come to a head" with a scandal. "All the dealers are out here, because Hong Kong and China are seen as the major market at the moment, and not everyone is as strict as they should be. Someone will get stung badly and the weeds will get drawn out," he said.
René Bouldoires, head of operations at Mr & Mrs Bund, one of Shanghai's top restaurants, said some of his clients inspected their bottles for up to 20 minutes before deciding to take the plunge.
"What makes it even more dangerous is that older wines tend to be re-corked. All of our wines from 1965 and before have been given new corks and that makes it even more difficult to spot the fake," he said.
Chinese premium spirits, such as Maotai, are even more frequently faked. Original bottles of Maotai from the 1950s now fetch up to £600.
"We have spent tens of millions of yuan fighting the forgers," said a spokesman for Maotai. "We use holograms, physical seals, light-sensitive ink and watermarks. We have an office of 80 people working on it. But it is impossible to eliminate the fake spirits," he added.