Hard as it may be to imagine Italy as the ragbag of independent principalities it was 150 years ago, its 20 regions might just as well be separate countries today when it comes to wine. It's part of what we love and hate about Italy. We love Italian wine for its innovation and flair, its multiplicity of grape varieties – some weird, some wonderful – and its affinity with food.
Yet it teases us with that very diversity. Just when you think you're beginning to get a handle on Enotria, as the Greeks named this vine-clad peninsula, its frustrating complexities and stifling bureaucracy are likely to send you scurrying for refuge in the comforting familiarities of France and the New World.
But Italy is such a wonderful source of truly great wines that it would be an enormous shame if we lacked the ambition necessary to get to grips with what it has to offer. Why is Italy worth it? Precisely because it follows a different path from its wine-giant neighbour France and a New World (with the arguable exception of Argentina) that takes its cue almost entirely from French grape varieties. And because Italy today has grasped the nettle of change to become one of the most exciting wine countries in the world.
Take an innocuous name like soave. Once derided for its vacuous semi-industrial bianco, it now produces wines of distinction from the local garganega grape. Surprise yourself with the 2009 Inama Soave Classico, £13.99, buy 2 = £11.99, Majestic, a delightfully fragrant dry Venetian white with purity of definition and stonefruit flavours. Or push the boat out with the 2008 Pieropan Calvarino Soave Classico, £17.99-£18.95, The Secret Cellar (01892537981), Valvona & Crolla (0131 556 6066), a floral dry white checked by an almondy, savoury counterpoint. Head south to the Adriatic and try out the intensity, concentration and finesse of Cantine Belisario's fine 2007 Verdicchio di Matelica Riserva Cambrugiano, £18.99, Philglas & Swiggot (020 7642 1576).
Despite the expanding variety of high-quality Italian whites, the country's main strength remains its superlative reds. You have innovative attempts at an international style in wines from Tuscany's Maremma region such as the 2007 Il Casalone Poggio Colombi, Toscana Maremma, a value red of seductively cherryish, chocolatey richness, £10.95, or £9.86 by the case, Jeroboams.
Equally the same sub-region shows the splendour of the local sangiovese grape in Zonin's seductively spicy 2008 Podere San Cristoforo Carandelle Sangiovese, £16.95, Berry Bros & Rudd (0800 280 2440).
My own taste constantly reverts to the great reds of north-west Italy, where the fine 2006 vintage is giving pause for thought with wines such as the hauntingly perfumed 2006 Massolino Barolo, £39.81, Corks Out (01925 267 700). With spring on the way, Piemonte offers a broader palette of more affordable rosso for springtime sipping in its dolcetto, barbera and nebbiolo. The sprightly fruit of G D Vajra's 2009 Dolcetto d'Alba, £16.33-£16.99, Bennetts Fine Wines (01386 840 392), Martinez Wines (www.martinez.co.uk), make it just the ticket for summer lunches. Vajra's smart and satisfying 2008 Langhe Nebbiolo, £19.91-£20.49, Philglas & Swiggot, Noel Young Wines (01223 844 744) is a mini-barolo in all but name – and price. And Wine Relief's damsony 2007 Villa Lanata, Lo Zoccolaio, Suculé, Barbera d'Alba, £9.99, Majestic, should bring a smile to your red-nosed face on Friday.