Wine: While we were all basking in glorious summer sunshine, anyone who took off for Chiantishire will be only too aware of the Pandora's box of rain and hail that dumped on Italy in August
When the New York Times recently called on right-thinking Americans to drop French wines in favour of Italian, you could feel the effects of the fall-out from Mururoa to the Mediterranean.

What was most surprising about the article, however, was that the aftershock had nothing to do with nuclear explosions; rather, the fact that a strong French franc and a weak Italian lira have conspired to increase the value of Italian wines at the expense of their French counterparts. In this instance, what goes for the Yanks goes for the Brits, too. Supermarket and high street buyers are turning to Italy and wine merchants are announcing increases in their French wine prices.

So Italy is in the box seat - or is it? Only up to a point. Coming on top of a late flowering of the vine in June, a poor summer in Italy indicates that hoisting the red, white and green tricolour may be premature. While we were all basking in glorious summer sunshine, anyone who took off for Chiantishire or its environs will be only too aware of the Pandora's box of rain and hail that dumped on Italy in August.

Italian prices are set to rise by 20 to 30 per cent, and perhaps as much as 50 per cent in the worst-hit areas, where stocks are already very low. In the Veneto, for instance, there is not enough soave or valpolicella to go round. So, as the Romans used to say, carpe diem!

And there is much to enjoy. Italian purists may pooh-pooh the influence of Australians and New Zealanders, but with a clear understanding of what makes the British palate slaver, the airborne division has helped bring much-needed accessibility to everyday Italian wines. If tannin and structure is sometimes sacrificed in favour of aroma, suppleness and fruit flavour, so be it. Geoff Merrill's richly-flavoured Frascati Secco Superiore, pounds 3.85, and his fragrant, apple and pear-like Grecchetto dell'Umbria, pounds 3.79, have done wonders for customers of Sainsbury's. So too have the juicy red Trentino thirst-quencher, Teroldego Rotaliano, pounds 3.99, and the international-style 1993 Barrique-aged Cabernet Sauvignon Atesino, pounds 4.99.

In Piemonte, Australian Martin Shaw, the original flying winemaker, now of Shaw & Smith, has successfully dovetailed with Claudio Manera from the Araldica co-operative to produce the Alasia range. Combining cool crispness with Shaw-inspired approachability and flavour, the1994 Muscat Sec, Alasia, pounds 4.99, Wine Rack, offers the fragrant, ginger-spicy character of muscat. The 1994 Alasia Cortese, pounds 4.99, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up, has a tinge of angelica spice and a riper, peachier character than is normal.

Exploiting Italy's native grape varieties, many trained traditionally as bush vines, often produces the most interesting results. Down south in Puglia, Kym Milne has added a new string to his bow with the 1993 Uva di Troia (Trojan grape), pounds 5.49, Oddbins, a sweetly pruney, tarry, oak- aged dry red made with David Freschi at Augusto Cantele's Puglian operation.

Dominated by large industrial co-operatives, Italy's sleepy Mezzogiorno still trails in the wake of France's Midi. Even so, improvements in vineyard management indicate that progress in the south is not confined to the antics of flying winemakers. In the 1993 Castel del Monte, pounds 3.99, Oddbins, Pasquale Cartarelli at Torrevento has produced a simple, modern, damson- fruity blend of the local uva di troia and aglianico grapes. More engaging still, the same modern winery's 1994 Torre del Falco, Rosso della Murghia, pounds 4.99, Oddbins, is a lightly oaked cherry-fruity blend of cabernet sauvignon and uva di troia with a softly textured mint and green pepper elegance.

From Sicily, Pellegrino's1992 Cent'are Duca di Castelmonte, pounds 4.49, Oddbins, is an engagingly spicy, oaky blend of nero d'avola and nerello mascalese made by E Catalano. Among a handful of good-value whites from Sardinia, Sella & Mosca's1994 Vermentino di Sardegna, pounds 4.99, Oddbins, is a delicately pine-scented, crisply refreshing, modern dry white made from a classic Mediterranean variety. And demonstrating Sardinia's fine wine potential, a dash of cabernet sauvignon added to the carignano in Santadi's 1991 Carignano del Sulcis Riserva, Rocca Rubia, pounds 8.95, Enotria Winecellars, London SW18 (0181-871 2668), Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh (0131-556 6066), makes for a deliciously supple, chocolaty dry red