Went to Cru after a Conterno wine dinner the other night in the interest of doing some side-by-side comparing. It is hard to discuss Barolo without making Burgundy comparisons. Both grapes are thin-skinned, very temperamental, and seem to only do genius work in small parts of the world. Great ones are the best, bad ones are horrible, and both now have people turning their backs on long-standing tradition in the interest of making high extraction wines pleasing to the current palate trends.
We chose a '90 Giacomo Conterno Monfortino as the Barolo because it was in the group we had just had and it made sense to stay in a groove. For the comparison, we asked Robert Bohr (cork dork extraordinaire) to choose a Burgundy he thought would be fair for a comparison. He chose a '90 Richebourg by Domaine Gros Frere et Soeurs.
1990 is considered a genius year in Piemonte and a great year in Burgundy. Because the traditional versions of these wines are truly born of the notion that great wine comes from the best grapes properly tortured while in the vineyard, not in the winery, these are very vintage sensitive wines. It would be better to compare an '02 Burgundy to an '01 Barolo then an '02.
As far as drinking goes, I think we preferred the Burgundy, but that may well be because it was up against mouths that had tasted 8 young Conterno Barolos at that point in the evening.
The greats from the great vintages of both regions are capable of very long aging. Traditional Barolo may be the dry wine that wants the longest time before it hits its stride, while words like nervous are used to describe young Burgundy. Great Barolos have blazing tannins in their youth that only precipitate with time or the interference of the sweetening effect of new wood aging (modern style). Great Burgundy is very linear in its youth; Burgundian tannins tend to be sweeter so the wines are more approachable in their youth, but consuming them then means aborting what is a very unique potential.
There is a school that says Burgundy should be drunk young while it is still largely about its fruit, but if what you want is the genius layers of cherry, horseshit, roasted game, and the hundreds of other flavors that Burgundy is capable of, you have to be patient, or pay someone else who is both patient and willing to give up the fruits of that patience. Unlike Burgundy, Barolo has a simple answer to the "what to drink now" dilemma. It is called Barbera and good Barbera can be had while you wait for good Barolo to become genius, which is why it makes no sense to use things like small oak barrels to make Barolo approachable young.
Wine people often use the word noble: noble grapes, noble regions, noble rot. I guess this a by-product of wine's roots in the times of nobles, but if there is a truly noble thing in the wine world it is the connoisseur. A person who has learned enough about these wines, in all their permutations, their makers, and their processes, and has the conviction to deprive himself immediate gratification to afford these greats of wines the elements involved in them becoming transcendental