Wineducation: Driven to Tiers: our hierarchy explained

Our Tier System categorises wines by price, into levels.

It is important to note that while Price can reflect Quality, it is more often a function of the cost of production and the ease of supply. Over time high end wineries build reputations that help establish them at the pinnacle of price demand. This is where hype, speculation and marketing can blur the edges of reason.

I created the tier system to help purchasers make comparisons between wines in similar price brackets. All wines on the site are categorised by tiers. Mixed cases state the tiers they are drawn from. Sometimes the wines in mixed cases may come from a single tier: More often they are vertically arranged across 2 or more. All our wines are locally or ‘estate’  bottled in their home region and can be independently verified as genuine. We can guarantee their provenance because we only work with renowned companies that care about safeguarding those same ethical issues.

A brief overview of the tiers facilitates comparisons within and between styles, and through the hierarchy of quality levels. To reflect worldwide production, we have more wines in tier 1 than 2; more in tier 2 than 3 and so on. Wines which we sell via our longlist that are not yet listed on this site are ascribed the same tier status as their peers, based on price. As one might expect we mostly sell tier 1 wines. This is the entry level for ‘premium’ wine.

Tiers 2 to 6 were created to tap into the multitude of wineries large and small in every wine growing region of the globe vying for quality (and approval amongst the wine drinking public). It is to these producers we can look to find not only wines of comparable styles and exciting new developments at all quality levels, but at much keener pricing; since demand has not yet outstripped supply. Here lie the real bargains. Remember, there are years of experimenting and pleasure to be had from the lower to middle tiers.

I see the most healthy and manageable wine journey, if such a thing could be generically designed as being this:

  • Spend a year or two in tiers 1,2 and 3 learning your ‘Pinots’ from your ‘Cabernets’ from your blends. See that white means more than Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Note the regions and producers you like. Become aware of the internal and external factors influencing your experiences.
  • Next, spend the next 3 or 4 years adding examples from tiers 4 & 5 to the mix. At this point note how regional differences can affect style (and prices). Are your tastes changing? Have you decided there are varieties styles you prefer? Do you expect that to stay the same?
  • The third stage is the killer stage. You may have been unable to resist the odd tier 6 or 7 wine in stage 2; maybe even come across them in a dinner party, but now is the time to really step into them with the confidence gained from earlier explorations.

Buyer beware: In tier 1, one has to be very careful with sourcing. It’s a highly competitive yet less well-regulated sector with its more than fair share of dodgy deals, deception and misinformation. Below a certain price it’s just not possible to supply wines I would be proud to sell. Generally speaking, currently in Shanghai, the quality floor is around RMB65 (though this fluctuates a little). Because competition at that end is fierce and while there will be some bargains to be had, it can often be a buyer beware scenario. Below that price level customers are at risk of being handed some dangerous or dodgy product. In the last 3 years I have come across traders with:

  • bankrupt stock which might be OK, if the vendor can be trusted with the provenance,
  • mass produced deception wines dressed up to be more than they are and intended for our local hosts (who aren’t yet savvy),
  • potentially contaminated bulk wines which are traded by shadowy figures who have little regard for the product or it’s safe transportation and bottling,
  • fake / counterfeits wines which speak for themselves and were getting a lot of press in the last couple of years,
  • over-supplied loss leaders ) which was originally over-priced and therefore unsold. Now miraculously reduced in price by up to 50% around Christmas, these are often ‘cooked’ stock they can’t otherwise deplete. The same supermarkets while knowing nothing about their produce, care less about their customers and have a a non-returns policy for a reason. In Shanghai it’s an acceptable business practice to ‘get ahead’ by ripping people off, even those you know well.

If you don’t mind taking risks with your hard earned cash, go for it. I won’t deal in wines in that area. I firmly believe that life is meant to a pleasurable experience and with that in mind I avoid the bottom feeder frenzy, and don’t chase down bankrupt stock I can’t be sure of.

a family wine businessGood News: The great news is that in every wine growing region of the globe there are a multitude of aspirational wineries large and small seeking to be the next Chateau Montelena (who ‘beat the French at their own game’ in 1976). Within those wineries are intrepid and perspirational romantics searching for quality (and approval amongst the wine drinking public). That is our key to the pleasure dome. It is to these producers we can look to; to find not only wines of comparable styles to the top end producers, whilst spawning exciting new developments at all quality levels, but at much keener pricing too; since demand has not yet outstripped supply. That’s why tiers 2 to 6 were created. Here lie the real bargains. And the best news is it’s a buyers market as (shhhh!) few are aware it’s even there.

At tier 7 a new set of rules takes over. Expensive methods of production, scarcity and hype meld with (and are clouded by) nostalgia, one-upmanship, speculation, and a dash of counterfeiting. All newsworthy stories, but ones which do muddy the waters for the consumer. The back-story remains that most tasters (even professionals) can’t tell the differences in quality above about RMB1000.

Our Tier 7 and above wines (found on our 800+ Longlist) are all verified; genuine. Interestingly, most palates and wallets I come into contact with prefer wines to drink now, at home, perhaps with a meal and no decanting or cellaring requirements. This explains the popularity for lower priced, easier drinking, fruit forward styles that even the great Châteaux are now emulating.

For special occasions, sure, dip into the ultra premium wines; once your palate is educated and you’ve established a solid base camp. The beauty of it is, that for the counter-intuitive mind, there are years and years of experimenting and pleasure to be had from the lower and middle tiers. Operating your wine searching away from the rest of the herd is the way to find the true value quality wines.

With a little guidance, the occasional leap of faith and an eye on what your personal responses are, this wine merchant hopes to help remove any obstacles and ease the journey.

The Wine Man

redrafted: January 2013

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