A matter of local pride

Italian wine owes its diversity to intense regional rivalries

Although Italy was unified in 1861, in the things that matter - wine, for example - it has remained a collection of provinces, each adhering to customs defined over many centuries of rivalry. Until recently only a few famous names - Chianti, Barolo, Valpolicella - had penetrated the international market. But thriving behind the thin veneer of celebrities was, and still is, the most varied collection of vineyards in the modern world. Nearly 3,000 years of continuous viticulture have ensured that the Italian varietals have grown into the soil, and the soil into the grapes, as almost nowhere else on earth.

It was this summer in Rimini that I had my first serious encounter with the Marzemino grape. This varietal thrives in the basaltic soil of the Trentino region, and the bottle that I enjoyed was the 2005 from Isera, a village near to Rovereto. The Marzemino of Padua province, the eager waiter informed me, is a quite different grape, and its product has no claim to be the wine cited both in the recorded notes to the Council of Trent and in the mad aria "Finch'han dal vino", with which Don Giovanni expresses his unassuageable lust for sensuous enjoyment.

I drank the wine with a Trentino antipasto - ham, smoked river fish, sheep's-milk cheese - and its fruity completeness set off the salt and the smoke in the way that deep-coloured velvet sets off a slender neck. As I sipped and murmured - it was in one of the regional restaurants set up in the great exhibition hall at Rimini, in order to cater for the Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples that takes place there each year - I watched with amazement as my Irish companions shielded their glasses with their hands. To be seated at table with two fearsomely educated Irish people, and to be the only one drinking, is a rare experience - certainly a first for me. Mind you, one of them was reading the poems of Patrick Kavanagh while the other, a beautiful girl with wine-dark eyes that matched the purple nectar in the glass, was playing melancholy Celtic airs on the violin. Their excuse was simple: this was their act, and they were preparing it. It was my duty to drink the entire bottle.

The melancholy poetry of that Irish dropout, rescued for posterity by his devoted brother, sounds like the mutterings of a half-drowned drunk in a roadside bog. As the wine began to work on me, and the violin leaned over the verse like a priest administering the last rites, I conjured up those narrow lanes between sodden fields, where Beckett's crumbling heroes stumble on in tetchy solitude, and every roadside house is both a pub and a funeral parlour.

And the plump aromas of the Marzemino rose like a veil within me, until Ireland became in my feelings what the EU has made it in fact - a thing of the past.