Until last month I'd never even heard of pigato, a grape variety native to Liguria. It took a Californian wine maker to introduce me to this fine, refreshing dry seafood white. This wine could knock your average chardonnay into a cocked hat on a restaurant table. But like so many of Italy's interesting native grapes, pigato gets lost in translation once it leaves home.
In Italy, newfound pride in local identity and the diversity of food and wine - it's where the Slow Food movement started, after all - has rekindled interest in the country's wealth of homegrown grapes. More than 1,000 varieties are authorised. While the mass market is still enamoured of international bestsellers such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, wines made from indigenous grapes are increasingly alla moda. Indeed, Italian producers are so excited about their own regional varieties that they recently came to an agreement that traditional grapes from one region should not be allowed to be used on the wine label by producers from a different region. It remains to be seen how long they'll stick to this agreement.
If, like me, you're less demanding when the sun comes out and you've a decent book to hand, even the anodyne likes of pinot grigio and bardolino can taste a lot better in situ. The absence of tax and excise duty helps too. But if you're living la dolce vita in the land of Dolce e Gabbana this summer, why not take advantage of the fact that from its Alpine head to its Mediterranean toe, Italy's unrivalled storehouse of grape varieties offers a refreshing antidote to the all too familiar wines of the New World.
Each of Italy's 20 regions has its own distinct wine identity, with wines made from local grapes that have evolved over time with the local cuisine. So if you're on one of the islands, vermentino in Sardinia and Sicily's grillo and inzolia are made for the local seafood. Verdicchio dei castelli di jesi from the Marche on the Adriatic and grechetto from Umbria are among Italy's most characterful whites. Fiano d'avellina, falanghina and greco di tufo vye for the southern crown, while in Venice, prosecco flows as freely as the incoming tide.
Puglia, Italy's heel, and Abruzzo further north, boast a diversity of refreshing rosato made from negroamaro, such as Calò's mouthwatering Rosa del Golfo (wine.rosadelgolfo.com). It would be hard to do justice here to the plethora of emerging native reds, but Chiantishire's good name has been restored by new-wave chianti classico and morellino di scansano made from excellent sangiovese. Veneto's much improved corvina has revitalised valpolicella and amarone, while Alto Adige's lagrein makes a crisp summer red. Further south, Campania and Basilicata's aglianico is transforming the south, along with primitivo, negroamaro and nero d'avola.
Does it travel? The wine might, but the ambience is not so easily bottled and carried home. So look for one of the many Italian specialists in the UK. Try the fragrant 2004 Angelo Negro Arneis (£8.95, Great Western Wines 01225 322800), and from Berkmann Wine Cellars (020-7609 4711), the richly textured 2004 Sannio Falanghina (£9.49) and for primitivo fans, the spicy 2003 Torcicoda (£11.99). Bisol Prosecco fizz (£7.99, Bibendum, 020-7449 4057), John Armit's sumptuous 2003 Colle Morino Montepulciano (£6.96, 020-7908 0600) and Mille Gusti's characterful 2003 Coroncino Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi (£9.25, 020-8997 3932) represent the Veneto, Abruzzo and Marche.Reuse content