HOW do you start falling in love with a country? When you first see it? When you first hear its music, or sample its food or wine, or meet some beguiling person from the country in question? There are many routes to the heart, and all of these play a role.

For me, Italy was not much more than an idea – and a vague one at that – until, at the age of twenty, I paid my first visit to Rome, en route to somewhere else. I had only a few days there, but it was enough to make me realise that this was going to be the beginning of a rather long love affair with a place and its culture. On that visit, which lasted only for a few days, I saw my first Italian opera – a production of that great double-weepy offering, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. I sat in the gods of a Roman opera house, next to an aged devotee of these pieces, who had the score on his knee and sang along while conducting with a free hand. I looked at him disapprovingly – in a very Edinburgh way – not understanding at that stage that this was perfectly acceptable behaviour in Italy. Out of a Protestant north – as Auden put it – I could not be expected to know that it was perfectly acceptable to show such heartfelt emotion at a public performance.

A few years later I returned to Siena to spend three months studying at the university there. My spell in the city coincided with the running of the Palio, that extraordinary horse race round the main piazza at which the various sectors of the city compete with one another with waving flags and lustily patriotic songs. I attended the blessing of one of the horses in a church, with the priest sprinkling holy water on the creature’s forehead; I watched the medieval parades; I had my first – disastrous – encounter with grappa, the Italian liqueur that even to this day I cannot look at without a feeling of nausea and regret. But most importantly, I took a bus trip to Montalcino, a small village in the Sienese hills, and fell in love all over again.

Montalcino in those days was not very busy. There was only one hotel and one pensione. I stayed in the pensione, which was at the far end of the main street, in a piazza dominated by an ancient fountain. Fish swam about the base of this fountain and each day a group of small boys appeared and threw stones at the fish before going off to do something else. That was all that happened in the piazza, as far as I could ascertain.

At that stage the local wine, Brunello di Montalcino, was not as well known as it is today. Its ascent to fame, though, was beginning, and over the next few decades Brunello came to be recognised as one of the greatest of Italian wines. Grown only in the immediate vicinity of Montaclino, Brunello is made of the Sangiovese grape that flourishes on the slopes surrounding the hill town. Climate and soil come together there in that lucky harmony that invariably pertains in any place that makes a great wine. With careful marketing and policing of the zone of production, the producers of Brunello made theirs a favourite of wine enthusiasts throughout the world. Prices soon reflected this. Today a standard bottle of Brunello will easily cost thirty pounds, with some vintages commanding considerably more.

Over the years I returned to Montalcino whenever I was in Italy. I had by then become a member of an Italian academic clan, one of those loose organisations of friends and colleagues that are a feature of Italian academic life. Through this, I met an Italian professor who was also the producer of a well-known Brunello. With that wonderful hospitality and warmth for which Italy is so noted, I was given an insight into the world of Italian wine-making and into the long and complex traditions of Montalcino. Just a superficial insight: one could not hope for anything more if one had any connection with the place shorter than, say, two centuries.

As an author, places you get to know tend to find their way into your books. Montalcino had already appeared in some of my novels, playing a minor role – a setting or a scene or two, a trigger of memory, an incidental reference. Now came the time for it to be centre-stage, and this happened with My Italian Bulldozer. What would happen, I wondered, if you went to Italy and discovered that your car rental arrangements were not all they might be and you ended up with ... a bulldozer? Too fanciful? Yes, perhaps, but in Italy the most extraordinary things can happen. Look at Mr Berlusconi – he happened.

Of course it’s easy to romanticise a country. It’s easy to imagine Italy against a background of bel canto and gastronomic delights. The Italians themselves sometimes do that with Scotland – many of my Italian friends have much the same colourful vision of Scotland as earlier European romantics had. Think of Lucia di Lammermoor, and of the wild popularity of Ossian.

But is there any harm in harbouring a fond vision of another country, in thinking that there is somewhere on this earth where beauty and music combine to elevate the spirits and make one want to break out into song, or at least pour a glass of Chianti, or Barolo, or even Brunello di Montalcino? Nothing wrong in that. Nothing at all.

My Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith is published later this month by Polygon, priced £14.99