I am sitting down to write a short piece about Italian wine and a sense of inadequacy prevails. This extraordinary country, which, over the years, has captured my heart, has so much of eternal beauty about it that even the descriptions of the wines are easily interchangeable with those of the art, architecture, countryside and people.
The wines of Italy, whilst not generally of the kind of subtlety and finesse of those of Bordeaux and Burgundy, have a character and style all of their own. Fortunately, during the last generation, the battle to improve the quality and reliability of Italian wines has done little to alter its uniqueness.
In 1965, on a visit to the magical art and music festival at Spoleto in Umbria, I sat with friends and played the guitar on the terrace of a restaurant on a hill overlooking the town, and we drank Chianti out of a bottle wrapped in wicker. The wine tasted like nectar to my impressionable teenage palate, but I know that the sheer romance of the sun setting over the ancient hills and mediaeval churches, the herbal smell of the air and the beauty of my companions (not to mention my brilliant rendition of the songs of Bob Dylan.) added immeasurably to the experience. 37 years later in 2002 my wife and I sat with a wine merchant friend and his wife on a balcony overlooking the main piazza in Cortona drinking a wonderful Chianti from Frescobaldi and on this occasion there was no doubt that even to my cynical middle aged palate the wine lived up to the beauty of the surroundings. They have come a very very long way in 37 years.
We finished that evening with a bottle of Sassicaia, the fabulous "Supertuscan", made by Giacomo Tachis in Bolgheri, near Livorno. Even the decision to use French classic grape varieties has not allowed this wine to lose its essentially Italian character. (My memory tells me it only cost about 20 quid but that may be just the romance talking again. I do remember my friend's wife forbidding us to buy another bottle!)
I suppose the point I am trying to make is that Italy is inevitably bound up in its history and geography. It is a tiny country, averaging no more than 90 miles wide and about 700 miles long, and into it is packed a vast quantity of Europe's greatest works of art and architecture.
Until recently wine has been almost incidental in this staggering richness of treasure, but now it is beginning to take its place as a major part of the Italian experience.
Samuel Johnson wrote in 1782, "A man who has not been in Italy is always conscious of an inferiority." This is as true now as it was then, but now there is very much less excuse.
Take an Irish airline flight to Verona, find a comfy seat in a café in the Piazza dei Signori, possibly one of the most beautiful piazzas in the whole of northern Italy, and try a bottle of Sergio Zenato's Amarone from Valpollicella down the road. This is a wine to set you up for your journey ahead. A huge meaty red wine made from grapes left to dry on mats until the end of March. It can be as high as 15-16 percent alcohol so you will feel very happy once you have drunk it.
Now take the train east which will drop you right on the Grand Canal in Venice. Build up a thirst by walking the incredible maze of lanes and alleys ending up in the Campo SS Giovanni e Paulo and order a bottle of sparkling Prosecco. OK not the grandest of wines but very refreshing and a perfect cure for the hangover you have from drinking a whole bottle of Amarone. Wile away the time by reading John Julius Norwich's fascinating "History of Venice" which may well make you never want to leave.
Force yourself and travel south down the Adriatic coast to Ancona in Le Marche. This is not the most beautiful of towns but you are in spitting distance of the Sibilini Mountains and the lovely villages of Cingoli and Jesi amongst others. Find a bottle of a wine called Planet Waves, named after Bob Dylan's 1974 album. (There's that man again.) It is made by an ex nuclear engineer now wine maker and above all Bob Dylan fan, called Antonio Terni near the small fishing town of Numana, 14 miles south of Ancona.
A Merlot /Montepulciano blend, each bottle bearing Dylan's personal endorsement, this wine is a clear indication that the Marche region is one to look out for.
Head inland now, travelling due west over the mountains to the tragic town of Assisi, so badly damaged by earthquakes in the 1990s, cheer yourself up with a visit to the university town of Perugia and sample a bottle of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, made largely from the Prugnolo Gentile, Montepulciano's version of the Sangiovese grape. If you are feeling particularly adventurous and rich, try Alberto Falvo's Vin Santo whilst you are at it.
Now, as you head north to Florence to immerse yourself in the great wines of Tuscany, you should be as addicted to this amazing country as I am and planning your next trip to visit all the many other wine producing areas and their treasures. Just remember Mr Meadow's comment in Fanny Burney's "Cecilia", "Travelling is the ruin of all happiness! There's no looking at a building here after seeing Italy"