American consumers looking to enjoy a value-priced bottle of French Pinot Noir may have gotten less than they bargained for in the past three years. French authorities in the Languedoc are investigating whether négociants and growers exported wines from the Vin de Pays d'Oc appellation that were labeled as Pinot Noir but made from cheaper grape varieties. Some of the wines were reportedly sent to the United States.
The story first broke in local newspaper La Dépêche, which quoted an anonymous source detailing an investigation by France's anti-fraud commission (the DGCCRF) and the local gendarmerie of the Carcassonne. Inspectors examining local wine production and export figures noticed a problem. Between 2005 and 2008, the Aude department, part of Languedoc, was exporting 160 million bottles worth of Pinot Noir annually. The problem? The entire Languedoc only produces 67 million bottles worth of Pinot each year.
If the allegations prove true, it would be a lucrative scam. Cheaper varieties from the Vin de Pays d'Oc sell for 70 euros to 75 euros per hectoliter (about 1,300 bottles worth of wine). Pinot Noir from the area sells for 130 euros to 150 euros per hectoliter. The investigators refused to comment on the case, but the informant claimed the investigation was looking at every party involved in the supply chain, from small growers and cooperatives to a large négociant, Ducasse, to the big producer Sieur d'Arques, which is best known for producing Red Bicyclette wines for export to the United States in a partnership with E.&J. Gallo. One of Red Bicyclette's popular wines is its value-priced Pinot Noir.
Sieur d'Arques general manager Alain Gayda issued a statement lashing out at the report. "Sieur d'Arques is named on the basis of rumors, in violation of the presumption of innocence, with little respect for our food faith and reputation. As a négociant, we bought wine, wearing official documents indicating Pinot, at the market price of Pinot and not that of a simple Vin de Pays d'Oc."
A spokesman for Gallo, John Segale, told Wine Spectator, "We are actively gathering all available information from governmental authorities and our supplier. As more information becomes available to us from the authorities, we will move quickly to ensure that the trust people place in our company and our wines is not put at risk."
Because the case may involve fraudulently labeled wine being sold in the United States, the Alcohol and Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) began its own investigation once it learned of the story. "We are working with the French to get a better handle on the situation," said spokesman Art Resnick. "But it is early in the process and we do not have anything else to share at this time."