IN 1855, Marquis Vittorio degli Albizzi, a roving member of the clan Frescobaldi, returned to the ancestral homeland in Tuscany. For generations, his branch of the family had lived in France. When he went back to the land of his forebears, he carried with him cuttings from chardonnay vines. He was about 100 years too early. In those days, the classical grapes of Burgundy had not found favour south of the Alps. Things have changed. In the past few months, I have gratefully sipped chardonnay wines grown from vineyards in Alto Adige, near the Austrian border, down to the Lipari Islands off Sicily. Because of the vast range of Italian climates and soils, the wines differed dramatically. Some were as tart and shrill as German whites, others as soft, round and generous as any Californian chardonnay. Last week, another offering - but with a difference - reached Hong Kong. It came from the same hilly vineyard 40 kilometres east of Florence where the first chardonnay grapes were planted by the far-sighted Vittorio last century. There are 85 hectares of specialised vineyards covering the steep hills at altitudes between 400 and 700 metres. Although there is plenty of summer sun, the altitude keeps the temperatures down below the sizzling heat of the nearby plains. Nights are cold and there is low humidity, whichhelps slow ripening. Now under strict regional quality control, the Pomino area is dominated by chardonnay grapes. When first confronted with a bottle of Pomino Il Benefizio, you can be forgiven for not knowing what it is. As with most Italian wines, you can't find any mention of grapes on the bottle. Make some inquiries, however, and you discover this is a most rare blend of 80 per cent chardonnay and 20 per cent pinot gris. I had never heard of such a mix before; neither had wine buffs I consulted. Take a sip and cry, 'Viva!' It's a delightful, refreshing drop. The pinot gris adds a bit of crispness to the richer chardonnay. The colour is a bright straw yellow. You have to be careful not to serve this too cold, otherwise you can't smell the appealing and elegant aroma. Too long in the freezer will also kill off the nicely-balanced flavour that stays in the mouth. As you drive along the local Pomino road, you notice something odd. On the downhill side, all grapes are red varieties. Climbing up into the ranges, they are all white. The road roughly marks the 500-metre altitude line. Things have been this way since the Romans drove ox carts along the same route, whites above the road and reds below. The chardonnay vines climb on the uppermost rows of the vineyards. When picked and carried down the hill, the crushed grape juice is fermented in small oak barrels, which is a technique the canny Vittorio also brought back with him from France. The wines also mature in oak before cellar resting in bottles. First made in 1973, the Pomino Il Benefizio laid down a benchmark against which other Italian wines could be measured. It was a pioneer whose track has since been followed by scores, if not hundreds, of others. The wine is aged, incidentally, in cellars under a villa built 500 years ago when poets were writing in praise of Pomino vintages. No doubt they had enjoyed a few bottles of the red. Recommended serving temperature is about 13 degrees, but on a warmish day I found the wine was tastier and long-lasting when the chill was taken off. I had a bottle with a roast chicken and it was a very friendly match, although it would also be a lovely companion with fish. Then I found out the price. At $258 a bottle (at Pacific Wine Cellars in Seibu, Pacific Place, on 2877-3627) this wine is going to have quite a few years to mature before I start buying it. Which is a pity. I enjoyed the wine but it is simply too expensive to recommend at that price.