THE man who almost single-handedly created the Beaujolais nouveau phenomenon went on trial yesterday on charges that his company topped up prestigious vintages with cheap wines.
Georges Duboeuf, the self-styled "King of Beaujolais" who is president and director-general of the company that bears his name, is accused of "deception and attempted deception over the origin and quality of wines".
A court in the eastern town of Villefranche-sur-Sane heard that, according to the results of an investigation by the French Fraud Squad, illegal mixing of grapes at the company's Lanci site violated the strict rules which govern the production of AOC - appellation d'origine contrle - wines.
One of Mr Duboeuf's senior production managers, Sylvain Dory, who was in charge of the production site at Lanci, faces the same charges as his former employer, and has also been charged with "false certification and false attestation". According to prosecutors, some 69,000 litres of "cru" wines and 120,000 to 140,000 litres of Beaujolais villages from the 1994 harvest were involved in the fraud.
Francis Battut, the Villefranche-sur-Sane state prosecutor, opened a formal inquiry into the matter last August. He said barrels holding the equivalent of 300,000 bottles were found to contain a mixture of cheap, average and expensive wines. "Everything was mixed up together," he said.
At the time, Mr Duboeuf said that what occurred was an error rather than fraudulent practice. He confirmed that no bottles had been put on sale and said Mr Dory, having admitted the mistake, had resigned.
"None of the wine was put on the market and as soon as we realised the mistake, production was blocked at the site. So, there was no consequence for the consumer," he said.
Yesterday, Mr Battut said: "Given that the breaches of the law are recorded, what is principally at stake in this trial is to determine the responsibilities of each of the accused."
Mr Duboeuf, 72, risks a two-year jail sentence and a 37,500 (26,000) fine if found guilty. His firm faces a 187,500 fine.
"We are pleading for charges against the company to be dismissed," his lawyer, Andre Soulier, said. "Unjust accusations have been made against my client who gave no orders and who did not put the wine on the market. This trial is not only costly for the company Vins Georges Duboeuf but also for the entire Beaujolais vineyards."
Mr Dory's lawyer, Herv Tmime, said he would also be pleading for the charges against him to be dismissed "given that he had no intention to deceive".
Based in Romanche-Thorins in the Sane-et-Loire region, Vins Georges Duboeuf produces mainly Beaujolais wines, 75 per cent of which are for export. The largest Beaujolais bottler by far, Mr Duboeuf produces almost 25 million cases of wine every year.
Widely considered to be one of France's most talented businessmen, Mr Duboeuf, whose family have lived in the Beaujolais region since the 15th century, is credited with single-handedly transforming Beaujolais nouveau into a worldwide phenomenon.
He began his business 50 years ago, cycling from restaurant to restaurant to sell his wines. His company now sells 36 million bottles a year in 120 countries and has an annual turnover of 110 million.