Has Flying Winemaker Ryman sold plonk as vintage?

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HE HAS BEEN dubbed the golden boy of the British wine industry, the man who convinced the world that a Brit could match a Frenchman vintage for vintage. But now Hugh Ryman stands accused of one of the oldest scams in the book - relabelling plonk as quality wine.

The 37-year-old son of stationery millionaire Nick Ryman has been accused of passing off ordinary Spanish table wine as a vintage from the Conca de Barbera region.

His relabelled bottles contain the vital "Denominacion de Origen" seal of approval, transforming a very cheap wine into a premium product.

Tagged the Flying Winemaker, Mr Ryman made his name by bringing to Europe and South Africa the wine-making techniques of New Zealand and Australia. For a while it appeared he could do no wrong. Now his reputation is in tatters.

He is being forced to sell his pounds 2m chateau in Bergerac, south-west France, where he grew up, to fend off a lengthening list of creditors, mainly young Australian and New Zealand wine-makers he employed. And some British customers have had to pay pounds 30 a case to recover wine supplied by Mr Ryman from customs officials who had seized it because because neither duty nor VAT had been paid.

Last week he admitted that his business, which sells some two million bottles a year in the UK, is in trouble, but insisted the sale of the chateau will help him get it back on its feet. He denied any involvement in a scam, insisting he had bought the Spanish wine from a long-time and trusted supplier. "We did not question the origin. We acted in good faith. There was absolutely no intention on our part to mislead anyone. What's more the wine is very good,'' he said. Asked why the purchase and transportation documents mentioned only table wine, Mr Ryman claimed previous consignments he had bought through the Spanish company had also been listed that way, although they had been from the Conca de Barbera.

Questioned as to why the purchase agreement describes the wine as "Vino Tinto Tipo Tempranillo Filtrado de Mesa", he replied that he was "not expert in Spanish". The description means that it is a red table wine of the "Tempranillo type". His claim that the mislabelled wine is good is unlikely to cut much ice with the authorities in Spain.

Graham Hines, UK director of wines at the Spanish Commercial Office in London said: "Spain has very strict laws governing the quality and integrity of its wines. We are very sorry to hear of this alleged transgression and have immediately passed information back to the relevant authorities in Spain for investigation."

Last November, his company, Hugh Ryman Wines, bought 150,000 litres of basic Spanish table wine in Catalonia. The wine was then taken by tanker to a plant in the south of France, where it was bottled and then sold by the Ryman company to suppliers in Holland and Norway as a quality Spanish wine.

The company had received an order from the Norwegian State Monopoly for 1997 Tempranillo from the Conca de Barbera. Getting a wine selected by the Norwegian Monopoly is a long process and Mr Ryman could not afford to lose the business.

So he bought the consignment of plonk,Vino de Mesa, from a supplier in Vilafranca del Penedes. Table wine is basic and anonymous; no mention of grape variety, vintage or origin is permitted on the label once it is bottled.

The wine was then taken to Beziers, in the south of France, where it was bottled as 1997 Tempranillo from D O Conca de Barbera. On 27 November last year, 1,600 cases were sent to Oslo under the Marques de la Musa label and, three days later a smaller consignment went to Holland. The consignment arrived in Oslo on 1 December and was launched on the Norwegian market on 1 January. Priced at 79.5 kroner (pounds 6.36) it sold very rapidly - alcohol is very expensive in Norway. The importers have been out of stock for two weeks and have ordered more from Ryman.

Ryman's fascination with wine came from his father, who bought the vineyard at Chateau Jaubertie after selling his stationery chain in 1972 to the Burton Group for pounds 8m.

Ryman senior was unable to make the wine business successful and sold it to a consortium, including his son, in 1994. Hugh Ryman says many of his financial problems flow from the poor financial management he inherited when he bought the chateau.