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Label tampering obscures fine wine provenance, merchants warn

Several leading UK wine merchants have said that they are regularly offered fine wines that have had so-called 'strip labels' removed, hiding their true provenance and potentially leading to consumers overpaying, writes Jim Budd in the latest issue of Decanter magazine.

Strip labels are required to export wines to the US and usually contain the name and address of the importer, as well as other details, such as the presence of sulphites.

But, as reported in the February issue of Decanter, there are complaints within the trade that some wines then offered for resale in Europe have had strip labels removed in an apparent attempt to obscure their well-travelled past.

Some merchants also report being offered wine in wooden cases that purport to be originals sent out by the chateau with the wine, but are really second-hand cases that have been sanded down and reprinted with a new vintage year.

Such tricks of the trade are hard to quantify and do not necessarily mean that the wine itself is fake, but they can obscure a ‘mongrel’ provenance that would affect a wine’s drinking quality, and so its value.

‘Unfortunately, the practice is all too common [and] we have to be very vigilant,’ said Hew Blair, chairman of London-based merchant Justerini & Brooks, when asked about strip labels.

‘We’ve been offered such stock many times and do not accept it,’ said Gary Boom, founder of Bordeaux Index and the Vintage Wine Fund.

At Berry Bros & Rudd, the Queen’s official wine merchant, fine wine buying director Max Lalondrelle said that the firm has trained staff at its warehouse to be on the lookout. ‘We don’t see much de-stripped stock anymore but we see sanded boxes on a regular basis,’ he said.

It’s hard to say what percentage of the £2.5bn fine wine market is affected by de-stripping and inauthentic wooden cases.

‘Definitely single percentage figures, I’d say,’ said Simon Staples, Berry Bros’ sales and marketing director.

If just 5% of stock circulating is misleadingly described, this still equates to £125m worth of stock.

Lacking an original wooden case or carrying a strip label for export can reduce a wine’s value by between 10% and 50% in the UK, depending on the wine, the Decanter article suggests.

See a digital or print version of Decanter magazine’s February issue for the full story. Find full subscription details here.

Written by Jim Budd (Editing by Chris Mercer)

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