The tricks behind the alleged PDO wine swindle

Reserva de la Tierra allegedly managed to market millions of bottles by deceiving five Catalan PDOs and millions of consumers

3 min
Camps of vine stocks in Alt Camp ready for the grape harvest.

BarcelonaScams that can be used to market wine have come to light in the case of Reserva de la Tierra. Reus's investigating court number 3 has subpoenaed six people responsible for this business group to appear in court on September 21 and 22. They are being investigated over the alleged fraud in the sale of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) wine in which five Catalan designations have been affected: Terra Alta, Tarragona, Catalunya, Montsant and DOQ Priorat. In the order, the judge reveals some of the tricks the company used to market millions of bottles of wine with fake PDO labels, which often also broke regarding aging, carried fraudulent mentions in competitions and medals, and were sold at such low prices that, according to the magistrate, the makers of "real wines" could not compete

From 2019 to 2021, Reserva de la Tierra allegedly marketed over 40 million bottles of the five PDOs affected. The judge also provides details on the size of the fraud in its first two years: D.O. Terra Alta is the most damaged in terms of volume, since Reserva de la Tierra sold almost 22.4 million bottles, a figure 13 times higher than authorised by the PDO and exceeding by five million bottles the total production of all the wineries in the area; in the Tarragona designation, 6.3 million bottles were sold, 25 times the authorised amount and almost three times the production of the entire designation. Regarding DO Catalunya, the wine marketed by Reserva de la Tierra (2.7 million bottles) is 2.8 times the amount authorised; for DOQ Priorat (1.3 million) it is nine times higher, and for DO Montsant (27,408 bottles), it was four times the amount.

The case's investigation was based on an initial complaint from DOQ Priorat, DO Montsant and DO Terra Alta, and the judge believes that the facts could constitute crimes against industrial property, fraud, misleading advertising and forgery. In total, police calculate fraudulent wines would have brought the company an income of around €20m each year, which would be equivalent to 50% of the 30 to 35 million bottles per year that Reserva de la Tierra, the main marketer of the wines and sole partner of Viña Tridado, which in most cases was in charge of making or bottling the wines, while the counterfeit labels were made by Adhesivos Orcajada from Murcia.

The wines were allegedly sold through four supermarket chains (Mercadona, Lidl, Charter-Consum and Aldi). They were distributed in Spain, but also throughout the European Union and in countries such as the United States, China and Brazil, as well as via the Internet. The judge specifies that, for now, there is no evidence that clearly indicates that the supermarkets knew about the alleged fraud. According to the judge, the origin and quality of the fraudulent wine "is unknown", but he points out that Reserva de la Tierra had external tanks for rent and acquired millions of litres each year from suppliers, especially in La Mancha and at low cost. There were wines whose aging or origin was incorrectly labelled, using brands which were not made known to the PDO authorities, such as Valentía Simba Lion Crianza or Vega del Origon.

Revelations in the company's e-mails

The order mentions internal company emails. One contains instructions to avoid being caught in future inspection controls. According to the judge, these include "hiding the main warehouse as if they belonged to another company" or hiding certain wines and labels. In another email, they explain it is necessary to differentiate between three types of wine samples: stock wine, to be bottled and sold; improved wine, to convince more professional buyers; and competition wines, "prepared expressly to obtain a score" a wine tasting competition.

There were also "quality problems", warns the judge: the "most serious" was in July 2020, when "after a series of repeated complaints Reserva de la Tierra suggested destroying an entire batch to Lidl". Following another problem with a non-alcoholic wine, the company proposed emptying the bottles, adding a disinfectant additive and re-bottle them, while in order to export some wines to Japan it proposed to eliminate from the list of additives the ones that are not authorised in the Asian country, instead of modifying the winemaking process. The courts will have to determine whether the fraud has been sufficiently proven.