Well, apart form the Aqueduct, Sanitation, Roads, Medicine and Education what did they do for us? Answer – Pinot Grigio. Well it wasn’t really the Romans it was the winemakers of Fruili, Pinot’s heartland in north eastern Italy. Believe it or not, this was a serious topic of discussion I was undertaking the other week here in Norwich with Matteo Rocca. Matteo, over here to undertake some tutored tastings on our behalf, is a fourth generation Italian winemaker. His company Angelo Rocca e Figli is based in Bergamo just outside Milan. His winemaking skills take him all over Italy, from Fruili, Veneto in the north to Sicily and Apulia in the south. Neither he nor I could understand the increase in fashionable status that Pinot Grigio has established in  the UK.

Now as a man living within 20 kilometres of the world’s couture centre, Matteo is well aware of the vagaries of fashion, but when we had the chance to pick Italian wine, why Pinot Grigio he asked? Why pick the clown when we could have picked the poet? Good question when what’s on offer in the white wine department is almost endless. Italy, known by the Greeks as Enotria (Land of the Vines) has more acres under vine than any other country in the world.

At the last count it boasted over two thousand grape varieties. In an effort to find out why so many diverse and exciting Italian wines manage to escape our attention, I thought we should step back for a moment.

Supermarkets do not often receive the best press and yes, much of that bad press is well deserved, but some aspects of the multiples deserve attention.

Try buying a Loire white in Rioja, or a Bordeaux in Venice and you will discover how fiercely loyal, wine growing regions in many European countries defend their local vinicultural produce. We take it for granted that day or night we here in the UK can purchase a wine from virtually any country in the world. This unfettered access to wines owes its success in some measure to the multiples. They have shaped the way many of us choose wine. As we are one of the largest wine importers within the EU and approximately 90% of all wine we consume is from supermarkets, it will come as no surprise that they have established many of our wine buying habits. This power has its downside too. In equal measure they are just as guilty of creating overexposure to a narrowing selection. Take the eponymous grape Chardonnay, almost unknown outside its birthplace in Chablis until comparatively recently, now planted in almost every corner of the wine-growing world. Nothing wrong with the grape, but it has become the Burberry of the wine world, over exposed and mass produced and occasionally badly made. Winemakers from Clare Valley in Australia to the hillsides of Burgundy are reeling at the high-street complicity in its apparent decline. This will change of course. What goes around, comes around.

Its apparent replacement in the on-trade with Pinot Grigio at first appears astonishing. Upon further examination logic surfaces. Many of us have dramatically altered our eating habits recently, we seek healthier diet, a more authentic source and a more transparent approach to production. Define the simple basics – now taken for granted here in Britain – of Italian cooking with its pasta, bread, olives, basil and balsamic vinegar and we find ourselves ticking all the same boxes. It comes as no surprise that we have decided to wash it down with a water-white, odourless unprepossessing glass of Pinot Grigio.

So, says Matteo, “if you want a regional style of wine to accompany your authentic styles of food why don’t you come and see us more often?” That’s exactly what I have been doing for some time and I encourage you to do the same. White wines of global stature as Gave di Gavi, Falanghina or Tartufo di Greco are as yet hidden under a bushel here. The ‘super-Tuscans’ Tignanello and Sassicaia are far better known but it was the wines of Puglia and Sicily that first excited me and to which Matteo accords much pride today. Puglia, known to us Brits as Apulia and to the English speaking visitor as the heel of Italy, runs northwards along the Adriatic coast for nearly a third of its country’s length. Puglia has now become known in the wine world as the New World in the Old.

The region’s grapes are mainly red. Negroamaro, translated as black and bitter, form the backbone of many of its wines, often blended with Malvasia Nero to soften and add velvet smoothness. These grape styles, shown to perfection in wines such as Salice Salentino, Copertino, Montepulciano and Primitivo show classic tastes of  Morello cherries with a ‘sweet and sour’ almost port like finish, adding refreshment when partnered with lasagne or Bolognaise sauce. Its delightful white is made from Malvasia Blanco and provides a wine with sage and oregano perfume on the nose. Sicilian whites are so close to stardom too, via their refreshingly dry Cataratto. With a region such as Puglia producing more wine than the whole of Australia put together, the tip of an iceberg springs to mind.

And if it is yesterday’s fashion you want to adhere to, ask any Californian what’s the original name of his precious Zinfandel. Yes, that’s right, it started as the unfashionable Primitivo on the previously overlooked heel of Italy.