China's booming wine market has created an astounding demand for empty bottles of famous wines, with fraudsters paying up to £300 for a good bottle that can be filled with a less celebrated vintage. Counterfeiters have begun collecting empty bottles and then refilling them to scam rich Chinese. A particular favourite is Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1982, which sells for over £2,000 an intact bottle at auction.
"We only collect Lafite and Maotai [China's most famous spirit]," said one Beijing-based bottle dealer, who gave his name was Mr Huang. "We pay in cash and can collect from the seller. We're offering 2,900 yuan (£282) for a good vintage bottle of Lafite Rothschild. We'll offer 100 yuan less for the Carruades de Lafite," he added.
Mr Huang said his firm collected empties from bars and restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing and that the run-up to Chinese New Year, in February, was peak season, as counterfeiters targeted wine lovers looking to celebrate in style. "The bottles need to be in the best condition possible," said another dealer, called Mr Ye, at a Shanghai company. "It is very important. And I only want genuine bottles, no fakes," he added.
In the past year China has become the world's fastest-growing wine market with legions of millionaires anxious to appear sophisticated. Last year, a case of Chateau Lafite 2009 sold for £43,000 in Hong Kong – three times more than it would have cost in London.