Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Well, I now know of two wildly differing prices of manzanilla sherry – what does that mean for its value?
My own recent holiday was to the Andalusian area of Spain, and as CJ so artfully expressed it, holiday drinking rules applied. I was looking forward to exploring the wines of the region. (Well, when I say “exploring”, I suppose I do mean, er, “drinking”…)
I particularly wanted to “explore” their sherries. At one point, I had even planned to visit and tour one of the bodegas in Jerez – but I was put off by a number of online reports that such tours are basically a tourist rip-off, a quick tour of Disney-fied facilities followed by a brief snifter (with overpriced tapas) and, as Banksy would have it, Exit via the gift shop.
(Although why I would trust such online sites I don’t know, since their reviews of Seville’s fabulous bars often consisted of ignorant criticisms such as “the fish came without vegetables”, or, in one memorable instance, “they didn’t speak English”. Someone even complained that the barmen didn’t smile enough. Never drank at the Coach & Horses, then…?)
In fact, I found it perfectly satisfactory to “explore” sherries from the right side of a bar. And what really struck me was the huge, the colossal, the perception-altering difference in price between Spain and England.
I first encountered manzanilla sherry as a chilled aperitif at Fino, one of the best Spanish restaurants in London. There, La Gitana manzanilla is £4.50 for a 100ml glass, which equates to more than £33 a bottle. Manzanilla has gorgeous crisp, clean nutty flavours and a bouquet of sea air, and even when I realised I could buy a bottle from merchants for less than a tenner, I still treated it with respect, poured modest measures, and regarded it as a luxury.
But in Seville, I found that it was regarded as just another wine. And after realising that I was being charged just €1.50 or so for a large glass of manzanilla in the bars, I thought I should check the prices in a Seville supermarket.
Well. Las Medellas, which I bought from The Wine Society for £6.95, was €4.33 a bottle in Seville – that was £3.50. La Gitana, which Majestic list at £8.99, was €4.85 a bottle – £3.92. And La Guita, which Vinoteca in London sell at £12.50 a bottle, was just €5.10 – £4.12 a bottle.
So what this comes down to is that in London, I am paying between twice and three times what the identical bottle of manzanilla costs in Seville.
Of course, you’ll say, there’s the duty that HMRC places on a bottle of wine; a higher rate of VAT; and the cost of shipping the stuff over from Spain; along with a chain of intermediaries who all want to make a profit. But still…three times the price?
And the thing is, I’m rather thrown. There have been proper research studies which confirm that a knowledge of price, along with things like label design or name, alter our perceptions of a wine. Of course they do. Just like a painting; we can’t help but be influenced in our judgment by where we encounter it, who has made it and what it costs.
So…what is manzanilla? A relatively expensive aperitif – or a wine for under four quid a bottle?
It’s my Champagne vs CJ’s Cava all over again – only in this case, it’s exactly the same wine.
How is a travelled, man of the world supposed to react authentically to a glass of manzanilla? Am I serving an expensive wine, quite a specialist drink, bit of a treat, served in a smallish glass and a bit pricey, actually…
Or, to people in the know, to proper men of Europe, is it something cheap, that’s supposed to be knocked back, to accompany an entire meal, something to serve in a regular wine glass, no need to stint, and downed like any other cheap wine, “Oh, don’t you know the authentic thing is just to glug the stuff…”
In other words, is the whole character of the wine, and the way you regard and treat it, inevitably altered by its price?
Ironically, of course, the manzanilla at the cheap price in Seville actually tasted better – because a far more significant influence than the price was the fact that I was drinking it standing in the crowd at El Rinconcillo, the oldest tapas bar in the world, with hams hanging from the ceiling, your tab chalked up on the counter, fabulous little tapas dishes, and a noisy, bustly atmosphere.
(My own experience was not remotely dented by the fact that the barman neither spoke English, nor smiled like a well-trained “Counter Person” from the Stepford branch of KFC.)
Having enjoyed what I can only describe as the low-price, high-value manzanilla experience of Seville, I wanted to bring some of these bargains home. But flights being what they are nowadays, I had to put the three bottles I bought into my check-in luggage. Necks protected with balled-up dirty socks, bottles encased in…dirty socks (we did a lot of walking, alright?). Each bundle rolled into grubby shirts, then plastic bags, and the bases placed into shoes. With enormous trepidation I undid my suitcase upon arrival, anticipating shards of glass and clothing awash in sherry, thankfully to find three successfully intact bottles – bearing a faint odour of socks…
So now, I am well stocked with manzanilla. But I don’t know what I’m serving. People will assume my La Guita is expensive, sipping manzanilla – but my La Guita is actually cheap, glugging manzanilla. Isn’t it?
The only giveaway is the fading odour of dirty socks…