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China awash with counterfeit vintage wine

Long known for its fake designer handbags and watches, China is now battling a flood of counterfeit vintage wine amid a growing zest for bottles from famed wineries as a sign of social standing.

With average consumption just one litre per person per year, China may not have an age-old wine tradition, but it is catching up fast and is expected to become the world's sixth largest wine consumer by 2014.

"A good wine shows that a person has a high social status," explains Wang Li, who is taking wine tasting lessons in Beijing.

"A famous brand and a high price are two important elements for choosing wine here," he said. Colour is also a factor - among China's wine-drinking classes, whites are looked down on as drinks only for women.

Wine from France is considered top notch. Last year, China and Hong Kong became the largest consumers of Bordeaux wines, while Chinese investors have bought several wineries in the area over the past three years.

Many rich Chinese are willing to dish out as much as 50,000 yuan ($7,800) for a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1982, from the Bordeaux winery of the same name, which is hugely popular in China.

Counterfeiters have jumped onto this lucrative market and French wine has become one of the main victims of China's growing love for a tipple.

Fakes are "everywhere - from bottom- to top-of-the-range," said Romain Vandevoorde, head of wine importer Le Baron.

"There is more Lafite 82 in China than was produced in France. So you really have to be wary if you find any of that in China," he told AFP.

Experts say it is difficult to estimate the impact of counterfeits on China's wine sector. The price range for fake wine varies from as little as 90 yuan to as much as 35,000 yuan for an exceptional vintage.

At wine fairs in China, some merchants have no qualms in openly exhibiting counterfeit wine bottles, some of which are very poor imitations.

Supermarkets and shops - where the majority of Chinese people go to buy their wine due to a lack of specialist wine cellars - are also full of fakes.

Counterfeits include bottles of Bordeaux wine that have been diluted with sugared water and had colouring agents and artificial flavourings added, before being sold for exorbitant prices.

Good vintage wines sold for unusually low prices with brand new labels are also a warning sign, as are bottles marked "Laffite" or "Lafitte" - wrong spellings for the famous Bordeaux winery that may go unnoticed in China.

But "there are much more upmarket copies, much better made, generally by re-using 'grand cru' bottles," said Vandevoorde. Empty bottles have also sparked a roaring trade, and can be found online in China.

He said people filled these empty bottles with lower quality wine from Bordeaux that is more or less the same vintage as that advertised on the label.

"There are also troubling mixtures that mislead even the best wine tasters - they're very good copies," he added.

Wine merchants are becoming more savvy and are learning how to distinguish fakes from the real deal, but the counterfeit market is still flourishing.

Wen An, who founded the Beijing-based wine tasting course Easescent in 2004 and claims to have trained 10,000 Chinese people, says that discerning consumers will help the fight against counterfeits.

"When the Chinese will be able to distinguish between good and bad wine, they will no longer choose counterfeit products." he said.