How else to explain what they're doing over at Majestic, where there's a new line of sherries from Hidalgo in Sanlcar de Barrameda? The full prices, which apply from 3 August, range from pounds 4.99 (for their Fino) to pounds 8.99 for an old Pedro Ximenez Viejo Napoleon. Until then, there's 50p or pounds 1 off each one.
For wines of this quality, the reduced prices are a steal; and none is more larcenous than the tangy Manzanilla La Gitana, a wine that usually sells for more than pounds 6. At Majestic, for now, it's just pounds 4.99. That's
cheaper than many a dull, over-oaked Australian Chardonnay with one tenth the character and one fiftieth the quality.
And the offer is particularly tasty at the moment because fino and Manzanilla are the bee's knees of summery aperitifs. The difference between the two is geographical: Manzanilla is a fino produced in Sanlcar rather than Jerez. Since Sanlcar perches right on the ocean (with seafood restaurants you'd kill to have lunch at), ocean breezes make the climate cooler and more even in temperature than the Jerez bodegas. They also, it is often claimed, impart to the ageing sherries a salty tang.
I don't know about the briny infiltrations, but I do know that a good Manzanilla is a thing of beauty. And that there are huge differences between wines from the various Sanlcar bodegas, even when they're separated in space by no more than a sardine's throw.
This latter point was borne home by one of the few methodical tastings I forced myself to do at the recent London Wine Trade Fair. The LWTF fills Olympia for a few days every May - tens of thousands of wines and spirits under a single roof, a sight that makes me want to turn around immediately I walk in the door.
I did manage to stick with the 20 Manzanillas on show at the Sherry Institute of Spain, however. And boy, was I glad I did. The wines ranged from the best-known style, young wines of pale colour, to the older Manzanillas Pasadas and Amontilladas, which take on a more sombre hue and a greater weight of nuts-and-dried-fruit flavours.
There were a few bummers but many more happy surprises, and none happier than the gorgeous Manzanilla Aurora from Pedro Romero. This producer rarely climbs on to anyone's list of major Manzanillas, which makes me realise that oversights still happen. Aurora is sublime, with a full range of flavours which easily justify its price tag (about pounds 9.50). Almonds and sultanas, creamy mouth-feel, tongue-warming alcohol - if you want a taste, ring the Exclusive Brandy Club (0169 773744).
Close contenders for first place in my tasting notes are the Solear Manzanilla Barbadillo (pounds 7.65, Safeway and independents), with a sharp cutting edge of acidity, and Valdespino Manzanilla Deliciosa (Lea & Sandeman, 0171 376 4767), with abundant tang and an exceptionally long finish. The name ain't hype. Price, about pounds 6.95. Incidentally, these prices, fair though they are, should make you realise what a bargain La Gitana represents at Majestic.
There were a few interesting appearances in the spirits section of the LWTF, on some of which I'll be reporting after making further enquiries. One that I'll probably not investigate is a curious spirit called Manx. This colourless fluid is made in the Isle of Man by removing the colour and the "impurities" from whisky, thus (supposedly) turning it into a drink you can chug all evening without suffering the next day. It's a clear attempt (no pun intended) to capitalise on the turn from whisky to vodka, but I fail to see the point. Why not drink vodka instead? Or, better still, one of those glorious Manzanillas.