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Fraudsters passed off 'plonk' as fine wines

The label boasted of wine "crafted with handpicked grapes" offering "dark fruit aromas and flavours of black cherry and ripe plum".

That description fooled the customers of E&J Gallo, the US wine giant, but not the fine noses of the fraud squad in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France.

A court in Carcassonne sentenced 12 local executives who were caught by the investigators passing off inferior wine as pinot noir and selling 18 million bottles of it to Gallo, the biggest family-owned wine firm in the US.

The managers from vineyards, a broker, the wine merchant Ducasse and the conglomerate Sieur d'Arques were convicted of making €7m profit by passing off wine from cheaper syrah and merlot grape varieties as pinot noir.

Gallo sold it in the US under its popular Red Bicyclette pinot noir brand.

The court passed suspended prison sentences of up to six months and fines ranging from €3,000 to €180,000.

Claude Courset, the local director of Ducasse and the lynchpin of the fraud, was given a six-month suspended term and a €45,000 fine. The Sieur d'Arques trading company was fined €180,000 for delivering the fake pinot noir to Gallo.

All but two of the executives admitted guilt yesterday.

The sentences, the latest in a long history of French wine swindles, were lighter than those requested by the prosecutor, when the case was tried on January 25. He had sought a jail term against Courset.

In their defence the pinot fiddlers argued that wine definitions were a grey area.

The judges were not convinced by their argument that pinot noir could be "considered to be a brand, expressing a taste and given qualities and not a particular variety".

Jean-Marie Bourland, lawyer for Sieur d'Arques, noted that Gallo had not filed any complaint in France.

"There was no damage suffered; no consumer, no company complained," he said.

In March 2008 inspectors from the local branch of the DGCCRF, the French trading fraud squad, became concerned during an audit at Ducasse.

They noticed that the company had for two years been buying pinot noir at €58 per hectolitre when the official market price was €97 and local ordinary grape varieties were selling for €45. They found that the volume of pinot noir being sold to Gallo exceeded the production from the region.

The judges said that "the scale of the fraud caused severe prejudice to the wines of Languedoc in the US".

After the verdicts, prosecutor Francis Battut said: "If Americans lose confidence in French wine production, particularly the Languedoc region, which is already going through a serious crisis, the consequences could be terrible."

Gallo said that it would ensure that confidence was restored in its product.

The company said the "fun and approachable" Bicyclette wines "reflect the warmth and charm of the southern French countryside".

The Languedoc has taken off in recent years after producers improved quality and engaged in clever export marketing. Overall, though, supply exceeds demand and growers are still going out of business.