Where does greatness come from? Is it ordained from on high? Is it instantly recognizable? Can it arrive unexpectedly? Is it developed by consensus? Can it be described? Can it live underground? If it falls in the forest and you’re not there to hear it, whose job is it to go get you and make some more of it tumble so you’ll listen?

Greatness was on my mind last week as I gratefully strolled/staggered the aisles of the Gambero Rosso Tre Biccheri World Tour show in New York City, tasting Italian wines that have garnered the top rating from the most influential wine guide in Italy.

Gambero Rosso, literally translated as “red prawn,” is a food and wine journal in Italy that 25 years ago began publishing an annual guide to Italian wine, “Vini d’Italia,” in conjunction with some of the creators of what would become Slow Food.

Each year, after a rigorous selection process involving multiple stages of blind tastings by authoritative Italian wine experts, around 400 wines are given the top award – “tre biccheri” or “three glasses” – in the guide.

For 2012, the total number of Tre Biccheri winners was 375, down from 402 in 2011. Whether the decrease is due to more selectivity among the judges or a worse year, I like that there’s no quota. There are certain standards, and of the roughly 20,000 (!) wines that come before the different sets of judges (more than 70 altogether) leading up to eventual selection or rejection, each is either good enough to keep going in the competition or isn’t.

I’m on record for generally disdaining the very notion of rating and judging wines, both because that activity ignores context (food, application, drinkers’ preferences, personalities and moods, time of year or time of day) and because there’s usually an absurd pretense of objectivity.

But at least with Tre Biccheri, there are many independent, well-regarded judges involved, bringing multiple perspectives. When you have a lot of passionate and knowledgeable people paying close attention to something and arguing about it over weeks and months, their collective decisions are at the very least worth paying attention to.

At this level – most of the winners retail for more than $25, many for much more – it would be inexcusable for a wine to be incorrect or even flawed. As far as I could tell, none was. I did come across many wines I didn’t personally enjoy, but I encountered none that was bland, none without something important to say. (The ones I didn’t like were the ones without something unique to say, which is different.)

I’ve had a lot of great experiences with Italian wines that haven’t received Tre Biccheri, and probably never will. Many of these have occurred because I wasn’t expecting anything in particular.

The first time I tasted a Cesanese from the Lazio region, for instance, was revelatory: How had I never heard of this miraculous grape? I’m not sure whether the Corte dei Papi Cesanese del Piglio Colle Ticchio ($18, Pine State) is “great,” but my experience with the wine undeniably was. (Maybe the great comes more readily when one prohibits a concept of greatness from playing enemy to the cherishing of the good.)

So, that’s a problem with Tre Biccheri: All the wines come pre-recommended, and one simply cannot help but be swayed. One’s appreciation of the wine necessarily includes an internal argument with the Gambero Rosso process, and this complicates one’s ability to keep one’s independent wits.

Still, if you’re looking to expand what you know about wine or even just what you’re willing to taste, you could do far worse than spend a few months exploring wines that bear the Tre Biccheri imprimatur. You’ll learn that the world is large, and that Italy may be even larger.

And lucky for you, there’s a relatively inexpensive way to do this: Taste “everyday”-priced wines from winemakers whose more ambitious endeavors win the big awards. I was happiest when I found that the TB winner I was tasting contained elements of wines from the same maker.

Falesco Montiano ($44, National), for instance, is a staggeringly profound affair; Falesco’s Vitiano blend ($10) has some of the Montiano’s same dry, philosophical spirit.

There were many such surprises. I had no idea that a wine I’ve liked for a long time, the Santi Valpolicella Classico Superiore Solane 2009 ($15, National), had won Tre Biccheri, but there it was. The least expensive wine at the whole tasting, its medium-bodied, smoke and licorice harmony was easy to love.

Tramin Gewurztraminer Nussbaumer 2010 ($34, National) was showstopping; a bouquet of lilies, punch-drunk aromatic and rich liquified rocks infused with lychee and petals. Tramin’s Pinot Grigio 2009 ($15) is immensely satisfying, lively and real.

Michele Chiarlo Barolo Cerequio 2007 ($90, Nappi) was exceptionally bright and floral for such a young Barolo, with tamed tannins that would allow it to actually be drunk enjoyably within a couple of years. Right now, though, Chiarlo’s superbly balanced Barbera d’Asti Le Orme 2009 ($14) has even more delicacy and grace, and is a pure delight. (Chiarlo’s Moscato d’Asti Nivole, $14, is very heavenly, by the way.)

Hands down, my favorite moment came when tasting the exquisite Verdicchio Classico Superiore Casal di Serra Vecchie Vigne 2009 from Umani Ronchi, named White Wine of the Year by Gambero Rosso in 2009. The wine is not (yet?) available in Maine, but some of its superb acidity, balance and structure – surrounding stone fruits, sage and hazelnuts – can be found in Ronchi’s non-old-vines Verdicchio Casal di Serra ($20, Central).

Follow the Tre Biccheri trail for a little ways. You won’t necessarily be guaranteed a great wine. But if you frame the encounters correctly for yourself – staying open, curious, quiet inside and humble – your experience will be great.

There’s no guidebook, other than the solitary one you write for yourself every day to rate such experiences. But they’re real all the same.


Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: [email protected]


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