French pinot noir scandal

image Or, what happens when the wine you ?re drinking isn ?t made from the grapes that are listed on the label.

French authorities say that millions of gallons of wine from southern France were fraudulently sold as pinot noir and exported to the U.S. over the last four years. This comes from Decanter, the British wine magazine, which reports that the non-pinot pinot was sold by winemakers and cooperatives in the Languedoc region to the Ducasse negociant firm, which in turn sold the wine to distributor Sieur d'Arques for sale in the U.S. The authorities aren ?t sure where in that chain the fraud occurred, and they aren ?t sure which wines in the U.S., if any, contain the fake pinot.

Why does this matter? Because inexpensive pinot noir from the south of France has become quite popular in the U.S. this decade, with labels like Red Bicyclette, Lulu B., Fat Bastard, and French Maid producing pinot for $10 or $12 a bottle. Again, there is no indication at this time that any of these wines have the fake pinot.

That price is one-half to one-third the price of most of the least expensive pinots made in Burgundy and California. In fact, a southern French pinot style has emerged in the last seven or eight years, distinctly different from those in Burgundy and California ? it ?s juicier, fruiter and less sophisticated.

After the jump, comment from some of those producers and details about how the fraud could have happened:

I contacted representatives from Red Bicyclette, Fat Bastard, Lulu B., and French Maid. Was there a chance their wines had some of the non-pinot pinot? Mary Wachowicz, the brand manager for French Maid, sent me this email: ?French Maid Wine is made in collaboration solely with the Bonfils Family, a well-respected family owned and operated wine company. They are not involved at all in this investigation. ?

Red Bicyclette, part of Gallo, buys wine from Sieur d'Arques. A Gallo spokesman said they were keeping abreast of the investigation, but didn ?t know whether their product was involved. Rebecca Rader at Click Wine Group, which handles Fat Bastard in the U.S., emailed this: "We are aware of the scandal but
are not involved." I haven ?t been able to talk to someone from Lulu B. yet. If I do, I ?ll update this.

The motive for the fraud, says Sam Assad, a well-respected Dallas importer who brings in wine from France, was money. ?Pinot noir is hot right now, ? says Assad, whose company doesn ?t import wine from the Languedoc. ?You can get more money selling pinot than other grapes. ? Hence, calling wine made with syrah or grenache, which are grown more extensively, pinot noir.

Which is how the fraud was discovered. The French authorities compared the amount of pinot produced in the region to the amount sold, and the difference was more than twice as much ? 1.3 million gallons produced to 3.2 million gallons sold.

Assad says the substitution could have happened anywhere in the supply chain. The co-op could have sold non-pinot pinot to the negociant, Ducasse, which then unknowingly would have sold it to Sieur d ?Arques and so on. He also listed another possibility: Wine agents called courtiers, who buy wine from a variety of sources and then resell it as one package. An unscrupulous courtier could have assembled the non-pinot pinot and then sold it to Ducasse or Sieur d ?Arques as pinot.

As noted, I ?ll keep track of this story, and report any updates or developments.