Sat, Jan 14, 2006 - Page 16 News List

France whines about its Bordeaux

Counterfeiting wines is nothing new but the French are starting to take action in Vietnam and elsewhere


A woman smells a glass of red wine. But is it the real thing?


Formerly, only a fine Bordeaux was good enough to grace the dining table in Vietnam. Now, after years of rough counterfeits, French wines have little-by-little lost out to competition from New World producers.

From T-shirts to luggage to perfume, nothing escapes the counterfeiters in a country which is open to the market economy but rarely of respects trademarks and royalties.

It comes as no surprise that wine, which conveys luxury and prestige, should receive the same treatment.

Bottles which have been used several times, wines mixed from doubtful origins, labels copied from the Internet, stocks unsold in Asia and re-exported to Vietnam: any way to sell fake wine is used and it becomes increasingly difficult to know what is really in the bottle.

"The wine is of such poor quality that it could come from anywhere and sometimes I suspect it is just fabricated from an alcohol base with coloring and some kind of flavoring. Not even wine at all," said Donald Berger, head of the Vine Group, a catering and wine distribution company.

As consumption of wine climbs each year with the Vietnamese population's increasing spending power, so the counterfeiters step up production.

And Bordeaux, according to experts, is the only wine to have been targeted by this underground activity, even if other wines are likely to suffer the same fate in the future.

Thanks to the country's colonial past, Bordeaux was the first wine to have touched the Vietnamese market and many people still use "Bordeaux" as a generic term for wine in general.

This level of fame and recognition has now, however, proved something of a double-edged sword for the producers of southwest France where the Bordeaux label is only allowed on wine from the strictly delineated region.

"One day I found a table wine sold with a label which hasn't existed for years while this type of wine is drunk within the year it's produced," recalled Youri Korsakoff of Ample Ltd, a wine and spirit import and distribution company based in the southern commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City.

"I also discovered a parallel shipment of a wine for which we have the distribution monopoly. By checking the batches, I was able to establish that it had been bought in Taiwan and that the importer had resold it in Vietnam after the 1997 Asian financial crisis."

The situation is complicated by the fact that the problem does not solely originate in Vietnam.

"There are also cases which raise more of a European problem than a Vietnamese one," said a French expert who asked not to be named.

Some industry observers even assert that some counterfeited wines actually come from Bordeaux.

"We've never had tangible evidence, commercial documents which prove that there were transits from a French operator to a Vietnamese operator. We didn't succeed in tracing back their networks," the expert said.

All those involved in the Vietnamese market do agree on one thing: the quality of the wines is in any case detrimental to the French producers.

"It is not good for Bordeaux because people associate

Bordeaux with that quality and lots of Vietnamese people now say they don't want French," said Berger.

The situation is similar to that of Singapore in mid-1990s, where many drinkers ended up turning to wines from New World producers: Australia, Chile, South Africa, Italy or the US.

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