French wine thieves caught red handed

BORDEAUX - French police have arrested 20 men suspected of involvement in stealing more than a million euros (S$1.73 million) worth of top Bordeaux wines.

An operation involving more than 300 officers in several areas of southwestern France and the Paris region had dismantled a "very structured, professional" operation, a spokesman said Monday.

Police believe the gang has been targeting some of the region's most prestigious properties and some of the men detained are well known to the authorities, he added.

A total of 13 chateaux and two warehouses which stocked wines from several properties were targeted for robberies which have been carried out, on average, once every two weeks since June.

The thieves' modus operandi was always the same: they used stolen vehicles and sprayed bleach where they had been to ensure they left no traces.

During the course of making their arrests, officers recovered quantities of cash and confiscated handguns and other weapons.

Officers believe five of the men arrested were the ringleaders of the operation while the others were involved in moving the wines on to buyers.

As they are suspected of having acted as part of a criminal gang, the suspects can be held for up to 96 hours without charge.

The properties targeted by the thieves have not been divulged. Producers are extremely sensitive about the security of their stocks and about any lapse which would offer an opportunity for the production of counterfeit bottles.

Prices of the very top Bordeaux wines from good recent vintages can easily exceed 1,000 euros ($1,300) a bottle, while older and rarer bottles can be worth many times that amount.

Thefts can be very embarrassing for producers as the wines involved may already have been sold to buyers who prefer to leave them in Bordeaux to mature and only take delivery when they have reached the optimum age for drinking.

This practice also makes it easier for buyers who have bought wine as an investment to resell.

Bernard Farge, the president of the Bordeaux wine board (CIVB), told AFP he was relieved to have learned the suspected thieves had been apprehended.

"Stealing top growth wines is tempting because they are high-value products that can easily be sold on, one bottle at a time if necessary," Farge said.

"There have been thefts like this before but never in these proportions." Last June, Bordeaux police recovered around 500 bottles, half of them from top properties, that had been robbed from a warehouse on the outskirts of the southwestern city. That theft is not thought to have any connection with the robberies that led to this week's arrests.