There has been a ‘horrifying’ increase in fraud at the very top end of the trophy wine market, Sotheby’s wine boss Serena Sutcliffe MW said today.

Sutcliffe, head of Sotheby’s international wine department, was speaking at a conference on wine investment in London.

The problem is far more widespread than people realise, she said, adding that it was common for her to turn down US$1m worth of wine which ‘just isn’t right’.

She said counterfeit wine was especially prevalent in the US and Asia, but that the fakes emanated from Europe. She said examples had ‘increased massively’ in recent years.

‘I am not taken to exaggeration,’ she said, ‘but given the amount of wine I see, it is absolutely horrifying.’

She predicted that the problem would ‘increase hugely’ and that ‘traceability is the name of the game – it’s hardly being done.’

Wine fraud is nothing new – and at this end of the market it is only relevant to a tiny proportion of very wealthy individuals. ‘We are talking about the very, very top end, the trophy wines, the 45s, 47s and 61s, often in grand format.’

When wines are this old and rare, it is not uncommon to open three bottles before you get a good one, Sutcliffe told decanter.com. Fraudulent bottles may contain very good wine – but the difference is, it is always good.

And there are a lot of very wealthy people who are not used to drinking old wines and have no idea they are fakes. ‘The vast majority of counterfeits are drunk with enormous pleasure. People often comment on how youthful an ancient wine seems,’ Sutcliffe said.

She said it was perfectly reasonable to expect wine to be traceable. ‘It’s not asking for any more than you would for a piece of art which comes from a verifiable source.’

On the likely affect on pricing in the fine wine market, Sutcliffe said wines with ‘rock solid provenance’ have a ‘whole different value’ compared to other wines.

Examples of fakes range from highly sophisticated copies containing top-quality, but different wine, to photocopied labels. Most of the time, copies are ‘beautifully done’ but often used the wrong bottle, and can be exposed without tasting the wine itself, Sutcliffe added.

Lastly, she said there are many more trophy wines around than there used to be. ‘There were more 45s sold and drunk in 1995 than had ever been made. A lot of the best wines were virtually finished 30 to 40 years ago, and now they’re growing on trees.’

Written by Beverley Blanning, and Adam Lechmere