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Priorat

The story of Priorat is one of the most amazing in the world of wine. An isolated, deserted rocky wilderness to the south-west of Barcelona, it has been transformed from a forgotten rural backwater to the home of Spain's most expensive wine in just over 15 years.

As recently as 1990, the Catalan government published a large book celebrating 1,000 years of viticulture in the region. Priorat did not even warrant a mention. With just one dirt track road connected the largest village with the rest of Spain and rudimentary infrastructure, no-one wanted to know about it. Making wine here was hard work and you got little reward as most was sold in plastic drums for pennies by the local cooperative.

It took a chap called Rene Barbier to recognise that these ancient gnarled vines clinging to unfeasible steep slopes had the potential to make world-class wine. Today, one wine, Alvaro Palacio's L'Ermita, sells for over €400 a bottle.

Priorat's isolation is its greatest feature. A land that time forgot, with century-old vines, gnarled olive trees and a unique soil type called Llicorella, a cool dark-brown slate that sparkles with quartzite. It is this soil that gives the wines what Jancis Robinson describes as their mineral essence. The wines are powerful and concentrated but unlike some other hot climate wines, the best Priorats are fresh and bright rather than jammy and cumbersome.

If Priorat has a problem, it is that it has been too successful. Nearly all the wines are expensive, often starting around £15. This means that few people get to try them, which is a crying shame. It means the wines remain the preserve of the rich and in the know. Happily, there is a pocket-friendly alternative; Montsant is Priorat's neighbouring region and while the best wines here may not have quite the pulse-quickening excitement of a great Priorat, they offer outstanding value for money. The vines are just as old as many in Priorat and have a similar depth and richness of fruit. M&S' Montsant Old Vine Garnacha is made by Falsat-Marca, one of the top producers and is a brilliant example. This is not just a Garnacha, this is an M&S Old Vine tastes-like-posh-Priorat Garnacha. You'll find it in stores for £8.99, or less online.

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