wein.plus
Attention
You are using an old browser that may not function as expected. For a better, safer browsing experience, please upgrade your browser.

Log in Become a Member


Wine as we like to drink it today would hardly have tasted good to most of our ancestors. Until the 18th century, it was common to add spices and herbs to the fermented grape juice. This was by no means considered an unacceptable adulteration of wine, but rather an improvement in quality, especially when the aromatic substances used were expensive. Diluting with water or fortifying with brandy was also quite legitimate, as long as the quantities involved were small. These pre-modern practices were based, on the one hand, on different drinking habits than today and, on the other hand, only oenological progress made possible the production of "pure" wine in the modern sense. Thus, many of the additives such as honey or brandy, which we would reject as adulterating today, served to preserve the wine. Conversely, the reduction of high alcohol wines with water was supposed to make them more digestible or to reduce the danger of drunkenness.


Ancient principles of authenticity

Nonetheless, there were efforts in earlier times to distinguish permitted from non-permitted wine-making methods. As Roderick Phillips writes in "The Great History of Wine," the regulation of wine production, trade, and consumption since antiquity has served three closely related goals: Quality assurance, health protection and consumer protection. Under these aspects, mixing old, spoiled wine with new wine was anything but a trivial offense. In order to make such mixing more difficult, English innkeepers around the middle of the 14th century were forbidden to serve different types of wine or to store them in the same room. Also, the guests were supposed to have insight into the wine cellar so that they could see how the wine was tapped from the barrel.




No abstract counterfeiting criteria

According to Lukas Clemens (University of Trier) and Michael Matheus (German Historical Institute Rome), innkeepers and wine transporters were among the 'usual suspects' when it came to wine forgery and fraud. In a scientific paper, the two historians have dealt with wine falsification in the Middle Ages and at the beginning of the early modern times, namely in the western and southwestern area of the German Empire. They came to the conclusion that during this time, "generally accepted, abstract forgery criteria were unknown". It is true that in principle one was already able to distinguish between permitted and unpermitted, genuine and false. But the boundaries were fluid compared to today. This is also due to the fact that in pre-modern centuries there was no central authority that could establish uniform legal principles, let alone enforce them. Norms to prevent the counterfeiting of goods were developed by the cities in the course of the 13th century. For example, the town laws of several Swiss and southern German towns forbade the pouring of water, the blending of different wines or the use of fining agents. In general, anyone who damaged the finances or even the life and limb of a customer by using a counterfeit was to be punished - an early form of consumer and health protection. Watering down or blending wine, which was concealed from the buyer, as well as an inaccurate description or the stretching of wines with brandy, cider or perry were considered to be clear counterfeiting offences.


Hodgepodge of ingredients

A list of wine additives drawn up in Frankfurt in 1402 includes no fewer than 27 substances, among them such exotic-looking ones as ginger or warm bread. Fining agents such as milk, egg white, clay or salt were considered harmless, while mustard was forbidden. Counterfeiters particularly struggled with the acidity, sweetness and colour of wine, using lime, poisonous lead acetate and berry juice. Alum also enhanced the color of red wines, but its effect on health was not fully understood. The practice of sulfur was similar: Only with time it was discovered that small amounts were harmless, but the shelf life of the wines could be decisively improved.Whoever manipulated wine illegally had to reckon with severe sanctions. Usually, the wine in question was threatened to be destroyed and the license to serve wine or to trade it was withdrawn.


Draconian penalties

In 1400, a vintner who had put an alum stone in her wine barrel was sentenced by the Ingelheim court to drink a glass of her wine into which the alum had previously been scraped. If she poisoned herself by doing so, this was the punishment she deserved; otherwise she went unpunished. The chroniclers speculate that she escaped with her life. A repeat offender was even walled up for life with bread and water in Überlingen in 1471! However, the large number of complaints at that time leads Clemens and Matheus to assume that the fight against wine adulteration was rather unsuccessful.


Wine scandals in the 15th and 18th centuries

Conversely, the large number of spectacular lawsuits against wine adulterers in the 15th century shows that a new awareness of possible health hazards developed together with efforts to safeguard wine quality. This is also supported by the fact that in 1498 the Freiburg Imperial Assembly issued regulations against wine adulteration, which were later used again and again. After the 15th century, historians also consider the 18th century as the "century of wine scandals". England's great demand for port wine led to supply bottlenecks between 1730 and 1750. So, people at the Douro began to spice up simpler wines with alcohol, sugar, elder juice, pepper, ginger and cinnamon. When the counterfeiting was exposed and when in London the fear was spreading that port wine was harmful to health, the turnovers dropped massively. The Portuguese government then intervened and started to strictly regulate and control port wine production.



In 1750, the Paris police discovered about eight million liters of spoiled wine, which was supposed to be sold sweetened with (highly poisonous) lead oxide. In 1764, it came out in Dijon that merchants were passing off cheap wines from the south of France as Burgundy. In 1791, the cognac distillers of the Charente voluntarily imposed quality rules on themselves, having previously copied the Portuguese and processed cheap imports from Languedoc and Catalonia. In 1794, an inspection in Paris revealed the sobering result that out of 68 wine barrels, only eight were flawless - the rest were contaminated with water, apple or brandy as well as colouring agents such as beetroot or wood (!). However, for Roderick Philipps, the fact that these cases were exposed and that legal steps as well as legal and voluntary measures were taken is "a sign for the growing concern about the quality of wine". So, in this respect, the two "centuries of wine scandals" are to be considered positively.


Small the step away from cheap wine

The emergence of the first real wine guides in the first half of the 19th century also shows that a new care began to develop in dealing with wine. In his "History and Description of Modern Wines", published in 1833, the Englishman Cyrus Redding devoted an entire chapter to wine forgery. He defined counterfeiting either as the clandestine mixing of bad wine with good wine to deceive the buyer, or as a fictitious drink, made from little or no grapes. Blending good wines to improve quality, on the other hand, was not counterfeiting. Redding had taken advance aim at the alcohol-enhanced ports and sherries because they were easy to counterfeit, "while the delicacy, particularity, and fragrance of a Romanée-Conti cannot be copied." More convincing is his argument that Port is particularly exposed to imitation because four-fifths of what is sold of it in England is of poor quality. The habituation to such cheap wines, he argues, "leads to the general public's inability to distinguish between pure and tainted wine, indeed to the taste of impure wine becoming the standard." Redding's criticism was thus aimed primarily at consumers: Although a legislative "Act of Parliament" would certainly be useful in the fight against wine adulteration, the best remedy against adulterated wine was a perfect knowledge of the good one.


Sources and literature

Clemens, Lukas; Matheus, Michael: Wine adulteration in the Middle Ages and at the beginning of the early modern period. In: Injustice and Law. Crime and Society in Change from 1500 to 2000, ed. by H.-G. Borek. Koblenz 2002, pp. 570-581

Phillips, Roderick: The great history of wine. Frankfurt a.M. 2001

RRedding Cyrus: A History and Description of Modern Wines. London 1833

RRobinson Jancis: The Oxford Encyclopedia of Wine; Art. Wine adulteration and adulteration. Munich 2007, pp. 805-806



The above article was kindly made available to us by the Merum editorial team. Many thanks for this. If you would like to order a subscription to Merum, you can do so here

Order Merum subscription

EVENTS NEAR YOU