How to spot fakes in the realm of high-end wines Review by Tiago Simões, 1st March 2023
Are you buying a rare and expensive bottle of wine? Anyone who has had the opportunity to see the film Sour Grapes, a fascinating and well-produced documentary about the counterfeit wine market and how one person can deceive an entire community of restricted wine collectors and auction houses, may be left paranoid to think " Am I investing in a mere counterfeit?". Although there are real Houdinis able to deceive even the most cautious buyers, in this article we are going to talk about the most important details to take into account when determining the authenticity of a bottle of luxury wine. Grab a magnifying glass and a small (but powerful) flashlight and let's start the investigation!

Check the label The label of a valuable wine is perhaps one of the most difficult components to imitate because there are so many distinctive signs on it. Winemakers take strenuous measures to make sure they are using a label with easily recognizable characteristics. The particularity and texture of the paper, the quality and consistency of the ink and the level of detail in the design make counterfeit attempts easier to detect. Examination with a magnifying glass will expose obvious defects in an amateur inkjet or toner-based print. The high quality professional printers and plate presses used to produce premium range wine labels will generate a pigment image with a smooth transition and sharp edges. We should also compare the paper used on the label and on the back label to find any differences in structure, color and ageing. 

Examine the capsule The capsule that covers the cork and the top of the bottle must be checked. While a loose capsule is not always an indication that a wine has been adulterated, it may be the case if it can be easily removed or shows signs of having been removed and reapplied. That said, it is not unheard of to cut the capsule to check the accuracy of the impression of the cork itself. When a capsule is tampered with, it usually only slightly reduces the value of the bottle because it acts as proof of authenticity. If you're buying pre-80s bottles, remember that the most used material in capsules at the time was lead, which, due to concerns about its toxicity, has since been replaced by safer materials such as aluminum.

Analyze the cork Some of the most obvious signs that a wine or its vintage has been adulterated will be visible when checking the cork. A wine that has aged for years, in contact with a cork, will have left a deep, dark stain on it (in the case of red wines) and the cork may still show sediment deposits or whitish crystals of tartaric acid. Also check the cork for inconsistencies and discrepancies that can be easily overlooked. Many producers put the year of harvest on top of the cork, and an imprint alluding to their brand or property on the side. With the cost of a bottle sometimes varying hundreds of euros between different years, you may be looking at a genuine wine from a producer, although it is possible that the label and/or cork may have been changed in favor of a much more expensive harvest!

Serial numbers Some of the more careless fakes will not have the serial numbers that were used. When purchasing many bottles from the same vintage look for duplicate serial numbers. Counterfeiters tend to be sloppy and real serial numbers are hard to come by. So there's a higher probability that they used the same serial number more than once. Find out about the number of bottles released in a particular edition of a wine you are buying. It is common to find bottles with serial numbers that do not match the number of bottles released on the market.

Check the wine level It is normal and expected that the level of wine in a bottle decreases over time due to evaporation through the micropores in the cork stopper (or any other not completely watertight seal that is used). All this to say that if the filling level of that Barca Velha from 1966 seems too generous it is usually a sign that the label and/or the contents of the bottle may have been changed. Why don't counterfeiters put a low padding level that looks more authentic? Because many buyers and auction houses will not accept fill levels below the base of the bottleneck and this would decrease your selling opportunities.

The sediment Many of the world's great wines are bottled after very moderate filtration. By removing a few elements, the enologist's intention is that these wine treasures can evolve positively for decades. If you are looking at an older wine, some sediment should be present in the bottle, especially in red wines. If no sediment is present, it is a clue that the contents of the bottle may have been replaced. The sediment should move with gentle shaking of the bottle. Sediments that are too agglutinated are often a sign that the wine has been kept at too high a temperature and has therefore lost its quality.

Above all, I want to make it clear that the main tool against the obscure world of wine counterfeits is not a magnifying glass or a flashlight, but pure common sense. Remember that if a deal sounds too good to be true…it probably is! The best way to avoid being a victim of counterfeiting is to buy your wine from reliable establishments and whenever possible avoid buying from private individuals who, even though they are not directly responsible for the counterfeiting, may also have been deceived.

Good health and good wines,

Tiago Simões 

The word "champagne" Review by Tiago Simões, 12th October 2022

"Champagne" conjures up images of moments of celebration, revelry and luxury in our minds.

The sound of people talking by an aperitif table, with music playing in the background and the occasional punctuation of the startle caused by a cork that came out of the bottle in a more uncontrolled way. The mysticism of this sparkling wine carries with it a considerable burden of ill-internalized facts and concepts. But today, we are going to explore (almost) all the complexity and magnitude of this carbonized drink that has won the hearts of the all world.

A little about the history:

Let's start by cementing the concept that most often confuses the enophiles initiated when talking about champagne: - there are immense types of sparkling wines scattered all over the wine regions of the world, but only sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region in northeastern France should be labeled with the name of that same designation of origin. In fact, less than one in 10 bottles of sparkling wine produced worldwide can be called champagne.  The region is primarily characterized by being the French wine-producing region located further north, which makes the cold and not very sunny climate bring challenges to all the grape producers in the region, namely the difficulty in obtaining fully ripe grapes from  consistently. Despite this fact, the region has been used for wine production since Roman times. For much of its history, the carbonization that developed in the wines of the Champagne region was just an undesirable accident, caused by the activity of yeasts (responsible for the fermentation process in grape juice) being interrupted by the excessively cold winters typical of that area. This means that some wines were bottled with incomplete fermentations, which started again inside the bottle when the heat returned in the spring. Without any orifice to escape, the gas was trapped in the wine inside the bottle and, if its quantity increased in an uncontrolled way, it caused the bottle to explode, for the ill of those in the vicinity. Everything changed with the British in the 17th century, who in addition to being fascinated by these charred wines (often promoting this carbonization by adding molasses to the wines before bottling them) developed new glass-making techniques capable of producing more resistant bottles and  able to withstand the pressure caused by the gas trapped inside them. With regard to the French, two personalities, in particular, should be mentioned for having helped the region to become famous for its wines worldwide. 

The first was a Benedictine monk, named Dom Pierre Perignon, who, contrary to popular wisdom, did not invent the second fermentation method in a bottle, but through his experiences and studies he brought to the Champagne region new winemaking techniques that have improved considerably the quality of its wines.  

The other was Madame Clicquot Ponsardin, better known as Veuve Clicquot who, after becoming a widow at just 27 years old, took the late husband's wine business and took it to levels never seen in the region before, exporting sparkling wine to distant markets and developing the  idea of ​​champagne as a luxury product. Her greatest contribution in terms of production was the invention of specialized shelves that allowed the bottles to be tilted upside down.  The bottles were then gradually rotated so that the yeasts (which for a long time made Champagne wines dull and not very appealing visually) were deposited near the outlet of the bottle and expelled after being frozen, in a process called dégorgement. Then, the wine was bottled with shipping liquor (a variable amount of sugar diluted in wine).  Adjusting the sugar level was particularly important for export purposes since different markets like Russia were interested in sweeter sparkling wines, while the English market historically favored drier styles. In the middle of the 19th century it was already possible to calculate the final result of a fermentation, with regard to the level of sugar, thanks to the studies of the French chemist Jean-Baptiste François.  In this way, the sparkling wines of Champagne started to be fermented until they were dry, and only then sweetened to the taste of the producer and/or the target audience.

A stage with 3 actors:

Although, the appellation of origin allows a total of 7 grape varieties to be used in its sparkling wines. Nowadays, practically all champagne bottles are produced with one, or more, varieties from a more restricted group of 3. 

Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are the  two permitted red grape varieties, and when a non-rosé Champagne is produced with one or both grapes it is designated as a Blanc de Noirs (a white wine made from red grapes, removing their skins from the juice).

The third variety that completes the trio of main actors is Chardonnay, used alone to produce Blanc de Blancs (champagne made exclusively from white grapes). 

The vast majority of wines are produced using a combination of the 3 grape varieties, from various locations within the appellation, in order to achieve a more consistent final product. To produce a rosé champagne, a white sparkling wine, is almost always made, to which a small amount of red wine is added afterwards to add color. Such process is prohibited in many other high-quality appellations of origin but used in Champagne because, when starting the process already with a rosé-based wine, it tends to gain brownish tones, not very appealing from a commercial point of view.

Vintage or Non-Vintage?

As previously mentioned, the region suffers from immense problems related to viticulture due to its cold and unpredictable climate. The way that the people of Champagne found to overcome this adversity is to launch Vintage or Millésime sparkling wines (made with wine only for one year) only when the year in question stands out for producing grapes of exceptional quality.  These years are generally years of greater heat during the productive season of the grapevine, when the time gave rise to a better ripening of the grapes. Although, global warming is contributing to this happening more often, the vast majority of launched bottles continue to contain sparkling wines from various harvests, which helps to maintain a consistent style, as the characteristics of each individual year are diluted in the mix. The law dictates that if a house declares a harvest as Vintage, part of the wine (about 20%) of that harvest must be kept as Réserve and used to improve wine batches from less good years. This law means that in bad years, producers choose to launch champagnes with the non-vintage designation, even when everything that goes into the bottle comes from a singular year. Thus they will not be obliged to keep part of that production considered inferior. Due to their theoretically superior quality and reduced production numbers, Vintage champagnes are almost always more expensive than Non Vintage.

Sweet, dry or everything in between?

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the most popular category in terms of sweetness are champagnes in the Brut category (dry style wines with no more than 12 grams of sugar per liter). 

The sweeter style champagnes (Doux) are increasingly difficult to find so anyone who appreciates a sweeter taste will often have to settle for moderately sweet Demi-Sec champagne. The growth trend goes to extra dry styles like Extra Brut or especially Brut Nature in which no sugar is added after the final fermentation of the sparkling wine.  While sweet styles are great to accompany a birthday cake or sweet tooth appetizers, dry styles are perhaps the most gastronomically versatile wines in the world, being at ease escorting from the most luxurious delicacies like caviar or oysters to a simple and quick meal  fried food on a week night.

 What to Buy?

In spite of the more than 19,000 farmers who make the life of the vineyard in Champagne, the number of producing houses is relatively low. Fortunately, with each passing day, more and more examples of Récoltant-Manipulant champagnes (produced by those who grow their own grapes) appear to distance themselves from the commercial and homogeneous style of the major brands.  If this is something that captivates you, look for the initials "RM"on their labels. The disappointing part is that in Champagne, perhaps, more than in any other wine region in the world, the quality and exclusivity of wines go hand in hand with prohibitive prices for many portfolios. With this in mind, I end this article by referring to 4 excellent suggestions at 4 different price levels for those who want to start discovering the world-class sparkling wines produced in this magnificent location. Good bubbles!

0-30 €: Champagne Pommery Brut Royal

30-60 €: Champagne Ruinart Brut

60-90 €: Champagne Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs

More than 90 €: Champagne Jacquesson Dizy Corne Bautray 2007"

The 10 best Châteaux de Bordeauxs. Review by Tiago Simões, 12th March 2021 

Nowadays, many destinations can compete for the title of Mecca for wine lovers, but the beautiful city of Bordeaux, in the south-west of France, surrounded by its more than 9,000 châteaux, is undoubtedly among the favorite candidates.

Despite this immensity of producers, just over a hundred châteaux call themselves the limelight, as far as wine prestige is concerned. And, even within that elite, there is an even more restricted selection of châteaux that represent the pinnacle of the great wines of this region.

In this article, I will make a brief presentation of these 10 iconic producers, who live in the fantasies of millions of oenophiles around the world.

Before you start The Bordeaux region is characterized by having a maritime climate, which, unlike our predominantly Mediterranean climate, makes it difficult for the grapes to ripen.

Due to climate change and the best techniques of viticulture and oenology it is possible, these days, to obtain grapes in good condition almost every year. However, each of the Bordeaux subregions has different characteristics and, therefore, the potential to make wines of a different style.

The main nicknames are:

  •  St. Estèphe;
  • Pauillac;
  • St. Julien;
  • And Margaux to the west of the river Gironde.

These four, are all included in the Haut Médoc region, an area considered ideal for making high quality red wines.

On the left bank of the Gironde river, the queen variety is Cabernet Sauvignon complemented by the remaining regional grape varieties.

On the right bank, due to the terroir being less suitable for this variety, two others appear with greater expression Cabernet Franc and Merlot. In this margin, the two main nicknames are Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. Further south, we have two great nicknames, Graves and Sauternes & Barsac. The latter is extremely important for the production of sweet wines from late harvest.

The Magnificent 10

Château Mouton-Rothschild When the first classification of Médoc producers was made in 1855, this château, at the time with only 2 years old, did not reach a place in the exclusive list of producers Premier Cru Classé (the first line of the regional ranking).

After decades of great wines and pioneering winemaking techniques, this injustice was corrected in 1973 and, today, it is the only château, on this list of 5, that remained in the hands of the same family.

Since 1945, all labels for each new crop, have been created by contemporary artists. This cast included names like Salvador Dali, Picasso and David Hockney.

In 2006, a batch of 12 bottles from the famous 1945 harvest, was sold at an auction in Beverly Hills for $290,000. When consumed without aging, it needs a good aeration time to soften the powerful tannins.

Château Margaux Born in 1572, this château has since been associated with great wines.

In 1787, when Thomas Jefferson visited, he declared his vineyard to be one of the best in the world. Interestingly, a bottle of Château Margaux 1787, that was thought to have belonged to Thomas Jefferson, was broken in 1989, in an accident, by a wine merchant in New York. He collected the title of the most valuable bottle ever broken. Fortunately, she was insured for $ 225,000. The wines produced have a floral aroma and an unmistakable elegance.

Château Latour Purchased in 1993 by billionaire François Pinault, owner of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, the wines produced here were already recognized for decades for their finesse and longevity in the bottle.

Since 2008, hectares of vines have been plowed with horse-drawn plows, as in ancient times. But, green policies don't end there. Vineyard workers use only mountain bikes to take off for them, thus minimizing their ecological footprint.

All Château Latour bottles leave the producer with a certificate of authenticity and wrapped by hand in tissue paper. A few years ago a batch of 3 bottles from 3 different harvests (1986, 1990 and 2009) was sold at an auction in Shanghai for $ 75,382.

Château Lafite-Rothschild Referenced historically since 1234, to say that the wines of this château are iconic for the Bordeaux region would be to be in a nutshell.

Made to last for decades, even a bottle of a good recent year, like the perfect 2000 can cost a few thousand euros. Due to the growing demand in Asian markets, few people have access to one of the 18,000 to 25,000 bottles produced annually. But, if one day you are lucky enough to taste this transcendent wine, do it accompanied by a hearty table.

Château Haut-Brion Traveling a little, I will refer to the only château categorized as top quality in the 1855 classification, that is not located in the Médoc. Although, it is thought that the land on which the property is located today has been used for planting vines since the times of the Roman empire, in historical documentation the first wines date from the "recent" year of 1423.

The first tasting note of a wine ever written comes to us from a London tavern in 1663. The writer, Samuel Pepys, described a French wine with a particularly good taste and which he dubbed "Ho Bryen". Was it an old version of the famous wine that today delights oenophiles with improved taste? Maybe, and maybe not. The Château is in a relatively urbanized area, which wanted a warmer microclimate, ideal for the ripening of its grapes and, consequently, for the elaboration of a nectar with a silky texture and unusual complexity.

Château Ausone Its name is a tribute to the Roman poet, Ausonius, who in his time took care of more than 100 hectares of vineyards in St. Emilion. After some financial problems, in the decades after the Second World War, the château today produces one of the best known wines in the region and, with the advice of one of the best French winemakers (Michel Rolland), it achieves good scores in specialty magazines every year. The style can be described as being more luxurious and concentrated than most of its competitors, which forces consumers to keep the wines for at least 10 years after the harvest year, in order to be able to appreciate all the subtleties that come with the internship in a wine cellar.

Château Cheval Blanc In St. Emilion, there is no 5-level hierarchical system as in Médoc. Here, the Premier Grand Cru Classé are only divided into 3 levels receiving the best (at the moment only 4) the designation of Premier Grand Cru Classé A. Both Château Ausone and Château Cheval Blanc appear at the top of this classification. Despite having a superb reputation for quality, the latter was the scene of a controversial episode, when the famous wine critic, Robert Parker, characterized the producer's main wine as being mediocre and disappointing. Invited back for a second tasting, the specialist was allegedly attacked by the winemaking director's dog, who had been less than pleased to read the tasting note.

Also, immortalized by Hollywood in the film Sideways (2004), in which the main character, Miles opens a bottle of the respected 1961 harvest. If you want to do the same, you will have to spend more than 2500 € in most of the countries.

Pétrus In Pomerol, land of the best Merlot wines in the world, there are no hierarchical tables. Here, only the name that appears on the label conveys to us the nobility of what we are going to drink. Perhaps, that is why in the château that produces the mythical Pétrus, there are no concessions when selecting what will be bottled. Only one wine is produced here, and everything that is considered to be of a lower quality than required to wear its name is discarded or sold. This fact means that, not every year, is the year to prepare Pétrus, which only makes the exclusivity of this wine even more remarkable. Perhaps, the event that most embodies the necessary dedication to the production of this treasure is the 1987 harvest, in which an unforeseen rain before the harvest led the producers to preserve the quality of the grapes, drying them, imagine... with helicopters. And what are so many affections for? For the glass to have a wine that can rival any other in terms of purity and transmission of terroir.

Château Le Pin After telling centuries-old stories in this article, it is not easy to make the transition to a Château less than half a century old. However, if there are fairy tales in the world of wine, the history of Château Le Pin is one of them.

An unknown "garage" wine with no significant commercial value, that started to be made from a vineyard with an area less than two football fields. But, in 1982, everything was going to change. In that year, a legendary year, not only for Le Pin but, for many other Bordeaux wines, the North American critic (led by Robert Parker) surrendered to the hedonistic and exotic style presented by this tiny château. Soon, the orders started to be too numerous to be filled by the number of bottles produced. The fever has lasted until today and even increasing the vineyard area to double and selling each bottle at launch prices in excess of 3000 euros, it is impossible to provide solace to so many fans around the world.

Château d´Yquem When the theme revolves around great Bordeaux wines, the head of most of us dreams of a dry red complex to be served. However, there is a wine made in Bordeaux that deserves to be mentioned in all texts on this topic, which is neither red, nor dry.

Made with white grapes from the Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc varieties in the Sauternes region, Château d´Yquem is a late harvest wine, in which the bunches are left on the vine for a purposefully long period. This promotes the development of a fungus in the grapes that causes a phenomenon called noble rot. By making small perforations in the berries' skin, the fungus causes them to lose water, myrrh and concentrate the natural sugar until disconcerting clumps. The wine produced with these berries has high levels of sweetness, even after fermentation has ended, and, in the case of Château d´Yquem, there is also a good acidity that perfectly balances residual sugar. What makes this wine so expensive in addition to its quality and pedigree? The fungus does not attack all the bunches in the vineyard in a uniform way, which makes it necessary to harvest multiple harvests to select only grapes attacked by noble rot. Such expense, added to the fact that the number of liters of wine is greatly reduced due to the loss of water caused by the fungus, causes the cost of each bottle to skyrocket.

In 2011, a Parisian sommelier, paid an astronomical 96,600 euros for a single bottle of Château d´Yquem dated 1811."

To conclude this article I have listed here the best harvests of Bordeaux in the last 20 years: 2000, 2003, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2016.