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Italian police put cork on 'world's best wine' fakes

FLORENCE, Italy (Reuters) - Italian police have broken up a ring producing counterfeit Sassicaia wine, a variety considered among the finest in the world that sells for hundreds of euros a bottle, authorities said on Wednesday.

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Bolgheri Sassicaia red wine comes from an area on the coast of Tuscany and has become one of Italy’s best known fine wines since it appeared on the market in the 1970s.

Officials from the Guardia di Finanza said the sophisticated counterfeit operation bottled inferior wine from Sicily in a warehouse near Milan, with meticulously reproduced labelling and cases that came from Bulgaria.

“The bottles and the packaging were perfectly identical to the originals,” Dario Sopranzetti, a colonel in the financial police, told reporters. “Even the weight of the tissue paper was the same,” he said.

Two men, a father and son, have been put under house arrest and 11 others placed under investigation following an operation launched last year, when a fake case of the wine fell off a truck and was found on the roadside.

Italy’s luxury goods industry, one of its most important business sectors, which also includes fine foods and drinks, has faced a constant battle against counterfeiting.

In a 2018 report, the OECD estimated counterfeiting cost Italian food and drinks makers 4.2 billion euros in lost sales alone.

When police raided the warehouse, the counterfeiters were labelling cases under the rare 2015 vintage, dubbed the best wine in the world by Wine Spectator, a U.S. trade publication which runs a closely watched annual ranking.

Sopranzetti said telephone intercepts suggested they were preparing 1,000 cases, which he said can sell for between 1,800-2,400 euros each, for South Korea.

“From the intercept, we gathered that the counterfeiters were selling a case of 2015 Sassicaia for around 500 euros, or about 70% less than the original,” he said.

He said the group had apparently been turning out 700 cases a month, generating around 400,000 euros, but it was still unclear how long the operation had been underway.

Reporting by Silvia Ognibene, writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Gareth Jones