A scandal shook Burgundy during the holidays after police raided four wine nigociants and one bottling firm that allegedly have been manufacturing sizeable quantities of fraudulent white and red Burgundies for several years. The fake bottlings were created by mislabeling simple Bourgogne wines as higher-level appellations or by blending Burgundies with wines from southern France, according to investigators.
So far, police have interrogated nine suspects, all of whom are executives, enologists or other employees at the firms involved, and several have been charged with various crimes, including fraud. Some of the suspects confessed to wrongdoing after they were caught by surprise in the raids, police said. If convicted, the suspects could face up to two years in jail and a $37,000 fine.
"We caught them with their hands in the cookie jar, and there wasn't much they could say," said the lead investigator in the case at the Service Rigional de la Police Judiciaire, in Dijon, France.
News of the fraud first became public when the local Burgundy newspaper Le Bien Public reported the Dec. 6 arrest of nigociant Denis Philibert, CEO of Maison Philibert, which produces wine under the Philibert label, owns a small domaine, and sells wines to tourists at a retail shop in Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy.
Since then, new developments in the case have occurred nearly weekly, as connections between the companies -- some of which sold fraudulent wines to the others, or assisted with the blending -- led the investigators to nigociants Manoir de la Bressandihre, Liglise et Fils and SA Goichot, as well as to bottler Sociiti Bourguignonne dEmbouteillage.
Police are still trying to piece together the full extent of the fraud. "We may find more, given that firms have many commercial links with each other," said the investigator.
The firms involved are relatively obscure and are not among Burgundy's elite vintners or leading exporters, yet some of the fraudulent wines may have been exported. For example, two-thirds of Philibert's yearly sales of $3.4 million came from wines shipped outside France, said police.
"These are wine traffickers, and what they did is unforgivable," said Marcel Dumas, head of the SRPJ, whose economic and financial section is spearheading the ongoing investigation with French antifraud authorities. He added that the first instances of the fraud may have started over 10 years ago and that the producers could have made more than 100,000 cases of fraudulent bottles since then.
"We wanted to give a big kick to this corrupt anthill," added Dumas. "It won't help Burgundy right away because consumers will be scared away from buying its wines, but in the long run we hope it will stop these bandits from operating. Most of the growers and nigociants of Burgundy are good and honest. It's some merchants who have big orders who commit the fraud."
In one case, agents arrived in a cellar to find an employee of Beaune-based nigociant Manoir de la Bressandihre labeling Bourgogne Pinot Noir as "1993 Auxey-Duresses." The employee showed the investigators a sheet of instructions from his company about how he was supposed to "upgrade" Bourgogne Rouge to higher appellations by mislabeling the bottles, which are sold under the Domaine du Manoir de la Bressandihre label.
In another case, Maison Philibert was found to have boosted its red and white Burgundies with higher-alcohol table wines from southern France, according to police. Such blending with wines from other regions is illegal. A unidentified spokesman for Philibert said only, "It's not as bad as they say."
"Philibert was in financial trouble, so they used Burgundy that should never have been sold on the market and boosted it with the Midi wines," said the police investigator.
According to police, Philibert wasn't equipped to blend the wines itself, so Denis Philibert turned to a bottler, SBE, where an executive has also been charged with fraud. SBE allegedly blended Syrah and Alicante with Pinot Noir to create such wines as "1998 Gevrey-Chambertin Lavaux-St.-Jacques Premier Cru" and "1995 Chambolle-Musigny," which were all sold under the Philibert name.
Police said the blend was made by Philibert's and SBE's enologists according to specific guidelines; for red Burgundy, they added 14 percent in volume of Midi reds to the Pinot Noir. For white Burgundy, they added 30 percent of Vin de Pays d'Oc to Burgundy Chardonnay. In one instance, this concoction became "Meursault" that Philibert delivered to Manoir de la Bressandihre.
Manoir de la Bressandihre confessed to making 4,000 cases a year by blending Burgundy and Midi wines, according to police. To make the blends, Manoir de la Bressandihre turned to SA Goichot, a nigociant outside Beaune.
One of Goichot's other clients was nigociant Liglise et Fils, which bought wine of questionable origin from Goichot at 10 francs ($1.50) per liter, then put it into 28-liter containers, which were sold to customers as "declassified grands crus" at a 300 percent profit, said police. Liglise had obtained grand cru labels that were shipped separately to the customers, police said. Liglise also labeled non-vintage Bourgogne Rouge as "1990 Vosne-Romanie," which the company sold under its own name.