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Champagne: great legend, nice history, funny story

By Aymeric de Clouet

When in April 2017 the Company of Legal Experts specialized in Collector’s items and Paintings decided to go on a trip to Champagne, I was not expecting to stumble upon a painting that would enlighten Champagne’s history as we know it.

 
Let me make myself clear: I am writing about Champagne’s history, not the monk(y) business. Although Dom Pérignon was a legendary wine maker at his time of life, he died 1715, long before the first bottle of “Champagne” was produced. He was famous for his red wines, still today 75% of Champagne vineyards are covered with black grapes. Dom Pérignon produced the finest red wines of his time, so popular that his name became the equivalent of a Grand Cru village: one used to order “a barrique of Verzenay, a barrique of Sillery, and another of Pérignon”.

 
There, you have it: a barrique. Before the Royal Edit of 1728, no wine in France could be transported or sold in any other form than in a cask, which made it impossible to make sparkling wines. It is only with the use of bottles that the production of sparkling wines could take off. It is only in the year 1728 that Louis XV, at the request of Champagne producers (Champagne being a red or pink still wine, mainly) that the authorization to bottle and sell was granted.

 
After bottling, a strange phenomenon appeared, which took many decades to understand: because of the frost in October, the fermentation process stopped and with the warmer days in April, it started again, causing many problems with exploding bottles and corks.

 
All this is now well known and established. Of course, British writers claim that they invented sparkling Champagne before the French. Like all good stories, it has some truth in it: because they imported wines from Champagne in casks, because they bought them early after production, and because they had the right to bottle (unlike the French) and had precisely strong bottles (due to coal instead of wood in the glass factories) and corks (due to the long relationship with Port), they had all the means to produce sparkling before France, and they did. But the sparkling they produced was champagne wine with an addition of molasses, probably very sweet, and dark, not very close to modern champagne.

 
In conclusion, as the foundation date of Ruinart proves, the first official sparkling Champagne may be dated back to 1729. To this date, the oldest painting known about it was the “déjeuner d’huîtres” by Jean-François de Troy in 1735, with the famous cork in the air. But on this day of April 28th, we discovered in the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Rheims the painting by Alexis Grimou called “le buveur de Champagne” (the Champagne drinker), depicting a man in a gown holding a bottle with a cork. The cork is tied with strings and a wax seal on top, and the man has the characteristic position of the thumb on top of it! Undated, it would prove nothing, except for the fact that the author died in 1733.

 
The only conclusion is that as soon as 1732, the first champagne bottles already had a “muselet” to prevent cork accidents, three years after the creation of Champagne, as we know it. The painting expert with us checked if it was a later addition by another painter, but it was not. The oldest painting of a Champagne bottle is now Alexis Grimou’s.

 

Another interesting detail is that Alexis Grimou was a student of François de Troy, Jean-François’ father. More than two centuries later, the rivalry still goes on.

 

 

 

To be or not to be an authentication expert: that is the wrong question.

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By Aymeric de Clouet

As a legal expert in wine matters, I feel that there is a need for clarification in the wine industry on the matters of counterfeiting. The first one would be: there is no such thing as a wine authentication expert.

A wine expert is someone who has an extensive knowledge of wine, wine areas, wine producers, changes in labels, foils, the history of glassmaking, etc. At the end of the day, a wine expert does not even need to taste wine, just like an expert in jewels does not dig out stones, or an expert in paintings does not necessary paint.
Like his colleagues for other objects, the wine expert spends his life learning all techniques, all stories of old, everything that can help him make an accurate statement about bottles. Because the expert’s job is threefold:
1. authentication assessment
2. evaluation
3. assistance in selling

But the authentication assessment is not an authentication certificate, because no one can be sure that a bottle is authentic. Not even the châteaux and producers dare to confirm their own bottles. The utmost certainty they give is: “no element was found that could lead us to think the bottle was fake”.

And so is the limit of an expert’s mission settled.

An expert can declare that he found no element that was unlikely for the time period or the château considered.

An expert, on the other hand, can declare that a bottle is fake, to his opinion, for this or that reason. But even then, one must be cautious as to the definition of a fake bottle.

A bottle with the cork and the wine of origin, but with a label so destroyed that it was replaced by a copy, is this a fake? No. It does not have the same value than the original one, but it is not a fake. Someday, we should explain to wine collectors that it is extremely rare to have both perfect levels and labels. It happened to me only once in 25 years, in a fantastic château cellar near Rambouillet, that had all the right elements.

(Even if it is not the theme, I will give three elements to you: natural soil, high humidity, but flowing wind through two small windows that prevented humidity to remain stagnant. No concrete, no wood cases, no artificial temperature control…)

A bottle is fake as soon as the wine is transferred from its original bottle or the cork changed by anyone else than the château. Yes, but this does not go without problems: in the many decades when the châteaux accepted to change corks every 50 years, do you honestly believe that they would open a bottle from the same vintage to refill the natural loss of wine? Some châteaux took, for example, one bottle delivered to fill the others. Some others added glass balls to raise the level without adding wine. But many just added the wine of the year, thinking that it would do no harm, on the contrary it would “freshen up” the old juice. Hence some nuclear traces from younger vintages, in perfectly authentic bottles from pre-nuclear era. Same goes with younger foils and labels, for older vintages. Only Yquem kept for decades enough original material to recondition the old bottles with the exact same label and foil.

Understanding history helps to understand today’s world, and the priority of an expert is to know it. Of course, ignorance is bliss, and many people prefer certainty than doubt. Well, certainty is more comfortable, but it does not exist.

Let us take another example: it was common in the years before the end of French colonies to use some Algerian wine to “better” (i.e. to raise the level of alcohol, which was the main quality criteria at that time) in French wines. If we analyse some of those great wines today, we will find that they are not 100% Pinot Noir, but are they fake? A practice that dates back 80 years, that cannot be remedied, is it a fake from the expert’s point of view? It would be today, but it was hardly so at that time, there was even names for that. Same goes for the paintings’ expert when he has to say who, between the students and the master, painted the picture! It is not 100% the Master, but such was common practice at Renaissance time.

The life of a judicial expert is filled with those “judgment calls” when you have to explain to non-professionals the subtlety of wine knowledge. Explain, instead of dictate. Convince, not impose. Still, in the end, you can get real results: last year I could find enough proof during a Police investigation to have an auction in Britain stopped and a counterfeiter of old cognacs arrested. But in this case, it is the counterfeiter who lacked subtlety.

An announcement

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FAIR WINES is proud to announce Aymeric de Clouet’s next auction, which will be the event of the year in Paris. It takes place at Millon on 8th June 2017.

An extraordinary private cellar, held in the same family for three generations, with rare treasures such as sixteen bottles of Mouton-Rothschild 1945, twenty-three Château Lafite-Rothschild 1945 as well as the famous ’86 vintage, and also Haut-Brion and Latour 1928, Mouton 1937, Petrus 1945 and 1961 (in magnum and in fantastic condition), Ausone 1953, Cheval-Blanc 1953, 1961 and 1982, Château Margaux 1986, etc.

Should you wish to receive the catalogue, and/or if you have any inquiries regarding our service, please write to us at info@fairwines.co.uk; we will gladly assist you.

 

 

Sakura Wine Awards 2017

 

 

Dear all,

Hope you are well.

There is good news that I would like to share with you. At Sakura Wine Awards, one of the largest wine competitions in Japan, the producers whom we have been working with have just received the Gold and Silver Award respectively. We are very pleased and grateful to those who have been supporting us in many ways.

Here are the winning wines:

Gold: Bourgogne 2014 (white) from Domaine de la Confrérie in Burgundy.

Silver: Chateau Grandis 2012 (red) from Chateau Grandis in Bordeaux.

Among other things, we work with wine producers. Aymeric de Clouet is well connected to wine producers in Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. He is constantly asked to give his opinion on wines from a wide range of producers, the most famous chateaux to unknown ones. Occasionally he meets a new producer who astonishes him. For those, we work together to raise recognition and establish stable distribution channels in Japan and the UK.

To make good wine takes time, decades or even sometimes over two generations. The quality is a result of a tremendous amount of tireless work, which is not possible pursued without lifetime passion. Nevertheless, this outstanding work is often not noticed enough. We have been keen for Confrérie and Grandis to be recognised as they should be and their wines sold at a fair price, so that their livelihood would be secured, allowing them to focus on wine production. It is a big problem that younger generations don’t succeed making wine when it is more struggle than reward. Thus receiving major awards means a lot to us.

Thank you again for your warm support and we will continue our efforts.

On Blindness and Beauty

Part of our service is wine tasting and we often combine the finest wine with art and music to make the occasion very special, something to remember.
We were very happy to be a part of a philanthropic evening with Sightsavers and Prosperoworld at one of the world’s finest jewellers, Boucheron.

 
Sightsavers is a charity working carefully and efficiently to eradicate blindness in over thirty countries, in some of the poorest parts of the world. It is one of the oldest UK charities and Her Majesty the Queen serves as a patron. The purpose of the evening was to raise awareness and funds among philanthropists. The guests experienced how life would be without sight, on the theme of “Blindness and Beauty.”

 

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With special goggles which make your vision totally blurred, the guests tried on some of the most exquisite jewellery and guessed its animal motif. Each ring came in the shape of an animal, for instance a tiger ring with a pink sapphire and diamonds.

 

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When it comes to wine, its colour can be misjudged when tasted blind. This is even the case for wine professionals as science tells us that sight is an important part of tasting. With Aymeric de Clouet, the guests blind-tasted Hermitage 1993 (blanc) vs Hautes-Côtes de Beaune 2012 (rouge) to guess the colour of the wine. As you can see below, the result was often, Wow!

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A video presentation was made by Dr Caroline Harper, CEO of Sightsavers. It was fascinating to learn that 80% of blindness could be prevented or cured, and a sight-saving operation for an adult only costs £30. At that price, surely we can help.

 

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The presentation was followed by a wine reception. The wine served that evening was Hautes-Côtes de Beaune Blanc and Rouge from an award-winning producer, Domaine de la Confrérie.

 

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Here are Sita and Anna-Louisa from Prosperoworld, which conducts in-depth research to identify outstanding charitable projects to support. Their mission is to convene thought leaders, social innovators and philanthropists, to inspire debate and leverage funding for tangible solutions to poverty and inequality.

 

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Lastly, thank you very much to Boucheron for your generosity. It was a beautiful evening.

 
All photographs by Elijah Villanueva

 

Overstressed Wine Industry Can’t Believe Their Eyes.

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As sole judicial wine expert appointed by a high court, one of Aymeric de Clouet’s jobs is to authenticate wines, mostly on a confidential basis. Some cases are like international detective stories which have to be unravelled, and sometimes de Clouet enlists the help of other judicial experts from different fields of expertise. In France, the Paris High Court has appointed such a group of experts. They contribute to each other’s inquiry in their respective fields when necessary. The team includes a world papyrus expert and a former head of the Musée du Louvre. De Clouet is the wine expert.

Here is an article about de Clouet’s experience and his opinion regarding wine fraud. You may find it interesting.

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Last year, I was approached by a Singaporean wine merchant desperate to know about a bottle of Romanée-Conti 1929 that he considered fake, because its label was printed with pixels which didn’t exist at that time.

I asked them to bring the bottle back to France for me to examine. The pictures on my computer definitely showing pixels, which is fairly natural, on a screen. We then examined it together, and the whole bottle seemed to me to conform perfectly to what it was supposed to be. Old used foil, old glass, old label.

It was apparently not enough for my client, who kept insisting on the pixel-like printing. “Can’t you see, can’t you see, it’s obvious, it’s pixels”. I did not see, the whole label seemed fairly typical of the time period. So we asked for the assistance of a judicial expert in old paper since all other elements were now cleared. She confirmed that the quality of paper, the printing technique and all details were at least 70-80 years old. At the end of the day, not a single element of the bottle had given any reason for suspecting fraud, but a lot of fuss had been made.

It reminds me of a story told to me at one of the greatest estates in Bordeaux about a self- appointed wine expert who likes to have fake bottles destroyed, which would be ok if not for the fact that she does make people destroy perfectly good bottles, simply because she does not know what older bottles look like. In the post-war France, not all bottles looked alike, even within the same estate, and even in the same case of wine. At that time, nobody envisaged that someday wines would make such high prices, and that a single bottle could be worth a month’s salary or more. Châteaux did not pay the attention to detail that they do today. And let us not speak about Burgundy. They started to print corks in the 90’s!

The current wave of newspaper articles and TV reports, plus on-line articles does raise the level of fear regarding counterfeiting. Rightly so: after Kurniawan’s scandal, and some others that are not to be discussed (I am sworn to secrecy on the cases where I was consulted as an expert), it is true that the level of fake bottles has risen. It is only natural, since the value of wine has never been so high, as well as the ignorance of buyers, who collect wines as a sign of status.

Most fakes remain easy enough to spot. Others need a bit of knowledge. The infamous Kurniawan could sell Romanée-Conti 1945 jeroboams without raising an eyebrow in the US, while everyone knows that only 600 bottles (75 cl) were produced. Some years ago, a big international auction house listed a 1947 from the same estate – which was never produced. Recently, another auction house in the UK listed cognacs from different years and various producers, all with the same cork and foil; another listed magnums of Cheval-Blanc ’53, with neutral foil, never used there.

As so-called specialists let many fakes through, one still needs to be careful. But this is not a good reason enough to believe that there are no real treasures still to be had, provided they are bought from reliable sources and appropriately vetted

Behind the scene – French wine auction

 

 

What is your image of wine auctions? We sometimes see breaking news and headlines on very famous wines fetching millions at Sotheby’s or Christie’s in Hong Kong, NY or London. Is this what wine auctions are really all about?

French wine auctions may reveal slightly a different picture. About €30-€40 million worth of wines are sold in French auctions every year. In small village auctions, people bid on wines for Christmas and their families’ birthdays. Larger auctions, taking place in big cities, are mainly for professional dealers at the top of the distribution chain, selling mainly to export, wholesalers and eventually to restaurants and retail shops. Supply to auction houses comes from many sources: from restaurants reducing their inventory, institutional wine investors, private collectors such as Alain Delon and the French Prime Minister’s private cellar.

The most sought-after châteaux and vintages from Bordeaux and Burgundy tend to surprise the world for the high bidding prices they usually reach, however there are still many value trades. For instance Aymeric de Clouet believes some off-vintages are completely undervalued for good reason. 1986 would be a fine example. It’s one of the greatest vintage for Médoc but their prices have been hampered for decades due to the poor quality of Pomerol and the subsequent criticism of an influential wine journalist….

So, there could be a price advantage in sourcing wines from auctions, but what about wine quality and authenticity, in particular given the increase in wine forgeries? In France, the wine auctioneers are bound by law to compensate for a loss incurred due to fraud. Because of this, the wine auction houses employ the services of an independent wine expert to assist the auctioneer. The wine expert examines all the bottles and suggests a prospective pricing in the auction catalogue, based on quality and how each wine has been kept. Aymeric de Clouet at FAIR WINES is not only one of the few wine experts working with French auction houses, he is also the sole wine expert appointed by the Paris Court of Appeals since 2011. When it comes to a legal dispute, the judge bases his decision on De Clouet’s judgement on a wine.

Please be assured that all the wines for our cellar service are sourced by de Clouet at the wine auctions where he serves as the judicial wine expert.

Lastly above are photographs of Alain Delon’s private cellar auction, with de Clouet in action as the wine expert for the auction house.