Plonk passes for rioja with the British

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The Independent Online
THE PHILISTINE soul of Britain's wine drinkers was last night laid bare to the world after it emerged that we have drunk 750,000 litres of ordinary plonk dressed up as rioja - and failed to spot the difference, writes Mark Rowe.

Police in the La Mancha region of Spain have discovered 300,000 labels for the respected Don Marino IV brand which were about to be pasted on to standard table wine. They believe that, in one of the oldest scams in the book, a million bottles of fake rioja have already been sold to the UK. But although the wine has been on sale on P&O ferries and in British supermarkets for two years, the sellers have not received a single complaint about the quality.

British police have seized 30,000 bottles of the wine over the past two weeks. Three Spaniards and one Briton have been charged with fraud after being detained for questioning in Spain.

"It wasn't bad wine, but it certainly wasn't rioja," said a spokesman for the Spanish police, who began investigations early this year.

They had been tipped off by genuine exporters and rival wine producers who had become suspicious that the "rioja" - made 300 miles south of the area where genuine rioja is grown - was being sold at an impossibly low price.

P&O said the wine was immediately taken off the shelves after the company discovered it had been unwittingly selling it for two years. Chris Laming, a spokesman for P&O, said: "We are very concerned that this situation has arisen." The company had received no complaints from customers.

But Duncan Vaughan-Arbuckle, founder of Vinopolis, the pounds 23m theme park dedicated entirely to wine on London's South Bank, defended British wine drinkers, though he admitted the scandal would force some soul-searching among wine experts.

"This does show there is some ignorance of Spanish wines among some people who buy them," he said. "People are frightened to complain in this country because they think they might make fools of themselves.

"But La Mancha can be very good and frankly it can be difficult to distinguish some La Mancha wines and rioja. I'm not sure that I could always tell the difference between the two. But these two wines are made from similar grapes and if anything, La Mancha can be even richer. Rioja is more expensive so whoever's done this has clearly made a very tidy profit."

But the makers of rioja, popular for its deep colour, rich flavour and abundant fruit, are less likely to see the funny side. Spanish wine producers have come under intense pressure in the British market from the wine makers of South Africa, Australia and California and the latest scandal will make it harder for them to battle for third place behind the best-selling French and Italian wine.

The scandal has rounded off a truly dreadful week for fine wine lovers. Their pretensions took a battering when American and French scientists reported that the chardonnay grape, considered one of the world's greatest wine varieties, is a cross between the princely pinot grape and a grape deemed so coarse it is no longer grown in France. Using the same type of DNA test that is used in paternity cases, the researchers established that chardonnay is, in fact, little more than a cross between pinot and plonk.

Nor are these the first such scandals to hit the wine shelves of Britain this year. Hugh Ryman, tagged the Flying Winemaker, for bringing to Europe and South Africa the wine-making techniques of New Zealand and Australia, was accused of one of the oldest scams in the book - relabelling plonk as quality wine.

Mr Ryman, the 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. Mr Ryman said he had acted in good faith and "was not an expert" in Spanish.

And even when the top-notch stuff is genuine, the British are paying over the odds for it. French winemakers were last week accused of overcharging Britons by up to 50 per cent for champagne.

An average bottle in British supermarkets costs pounds 8 more than in France, and famous grandes marques such as Moet and Veuve Clicquot are priced up to pounds 10 higher here than in French supermarkets.