Concerns are growing in some wine industry circles that a few rogue Chinese wine traders may be mounting a wine scam, just as the 2009 Bordeaux futures sales are poised to begin, experts fear.
Fine wine merchant Bordeaux Index alleged that unscrupulous traders in Shanghai had hoodwinked private customers into ordering and paying for the 2009 vintage of legendary wines.
Among the top wine names concerned were Chateau Lafite and its popular second wine, Carruades de Lafite, when there is little possibility that the wines will be delivered.
The top Bordeaux wines this year are widely expected to be of particularly good quality.
"We've long had concerns that a vintage like the 2009 Bordeaux could result in fraudulent futures trading," said Sam Gleave, Hong Kong sales director for Bordeaux Index.
Simon Staples, sales director at Berry Bros & Rudd in London, told AFP that he did not want to be a "scaremonger" but felt caution was necessary, especially in a market that has not traditionally bought en primeur.
"I would not be surprised if three times more 2009 Lafite will be sold than has been made," he said.
The alleged problem is not limited to Shanghai.
BBR's representative in Mainland China sent Hong Kong managing director Nicholas Pegna an Internet link, also provided to AFP, to a Chinese wine shop selling Carruades 2009 at 580 yuan (85 dollars, 64 euros). The wine has not been released for sale, so there is no legitimate price.
"On contact, these people said that the prices were for reference only'," wrote Pegna to AFP, but past experience leaves him dubious.
"We saw companies setting up to offer the 2005 Bordeaux and a number of them didn't deliver, so I do expect it to be happening again with the 2009s," wrote Pegna.
"The concern is always that the primeur system becomes tainted by a few rogue traders and consumers have a very tough lesson in the need to research who they buy from."
In a unique, often poorly understood system called en primeurs, Bordeaux's most exclusive wines, the grands crus classés, are sold as a futures commodity 12-18 months prior to bottling.
Winegrowers offer merchants a specific number of cases, or an allocation, for resale. It takes years, even decades, to acquire large allocations of top wines. Brokers act as middlemen, earning a two-percent commission on every transaction.
According to Francois Leveque, president of the Bordeaux wine and spirits brokers' syndicat, so far, none of the 2009 vintage grand cru classé wines has been released for sale.
"We are waiting for Robert Parker's ratings today," said Leveque. In a spectacular vintage like 2009, the wine critic's ratings will fuel the excitement and generate dynamic trading. "The real campaign will begin next week."
But many consumers do not understand how the system works, and the Chinese, now the biggest volume customer for Bordeaux outside the EU, are still new to the en primeurs market, leaving them vulnerable to hucksters.
"There's a huge interest in the 2009 Bordeaux from China," said Gleave. "In an unregulated and uneducated market, there was always potential for rogue trading in en-primeur. Unfortunately, it seems as if that potential has been realised."
The alleged scam is to offer the wine for sale, take the customers money and then never deliver the wine. The fraud becomes apparent only with time.
"We cannot call it wine fraud because it will be another two years before a crime could be considered to have been committed," Gleave wrote to AFP.
"If suppliers deliver then obviously that's great" however what has driven my concern is that some suppliers are taking money for and actually confirming orders for wines that have not yet been released by the chateaux."
Reputable merchants would not offer a wine for sale without knowing the price and their allocation. And allocations this year will be at a premium.
"Such is demand in this vintage that it is highly unlikely relative newcomers to the primeur market - Chinese buyers who have not yet built up established lines of allocations with negociants (merchants), can give such a commitment, especially before the chateaux have even released the prices!" Gleave wrote in an email to AFP.
Merchants from Bordeaux to London to Hong Kong urged consumers to proceed carefully.
"The next few months could easily be used, wittingly or unwittingly, by wine shops all over the world to sell bogus stock," cautioned Staples from London.
"Make sure that the merchant you buy from has been trading en primeur for 10 years at a minimum and will be solvent in 2012-13."
He explained: "New merchants will not have positions' on these wines and they will not be able to fulfill the orders."
Concerns about a possible confidence trick, arising from past experience, are based on offers of the wine for sale, taking customers' money but never delivering the wine.
The 2000 vintage attracted disreputable traders, including two Bordeaux merchants who absconded with more than a million euros, by selling wine en primeurs. No wine was ever purchased or delivered.
Another alleged case comes to trial in Britain this June in which the directors of two wine investment companies have been accused of conspiracy to defraud investors who allegedly paid en primeur for wine that was never received.
Staples told AFP that he had not yet come across any illicit trading of the 2009 vintage in Britain but that he had "been worried that this would raise its ugly head as we get closer to game time' for the fabled 2009s."
Gleave said that "we urge buyers interested in the 2009 Bordeaux to deal exclusively with reputable merchants only."
Prior to the release on the market, "anyone offering top 2009 Bordeaux is a fraud."
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