Drinking Barolo is Like Reading Joyce

cannubiLast night I had the opportunity to taste, side by side, a wine sourced from the famed Cannubi Vineyard in Barolo and a Barolo Normale, a blend from several vineyards, both made by the same producer, Francesco Rinaldi, from the same vintage, 2016. The comparison was interesting because of the debate about whether single vineyard Barolo are worth the premium price. Many think only blends of several vineyards will show Barolo at its best. But this single vineyard bottling was not just any vineyard. Cannubi is widely regarded as the region’s finest.

After 4 hours of decanting, the Cannubi leaped from the glass with distinctive dark berries, violets, spice, and crushed rock. The palate was austere but the tannins were just bearable and the mid-palate very fresh and lively. The Normale was closed on the nose, had more breadth and warmth on the palate, but lacked expressiveness.

An hour’s conversation ensued about their relative merits. Meanwhile both wines went through endless mutations as they sat in the glass to the point where I lost track of which I preferred, partly because it’s a challenge to remain receptive to nuance when assaulted by so much aggression and severity. Barolo is a fascinating wine full of paradoxes and conundrums. It’s simultaneously delicate, and sensual, angular and hostile, expressive, and mute. Despite all that strum und drang I had to ask myself “Am I really enjoying this?”

After the pleasures of a lovely meal, an excellent Burgundy Premier Crus, a well preserved, elegant Oakville Cabernet from Mondavi, and a delicious Cornas we returned to the Barolo comparison, the wines having had 3 more hours to oxygenate. Sure enough they were finally open and generous. But it had been a struggle and they weren’t that generous. They still weren’t going to give up their charms easily.

On the way home, I had the thought that the hours spent this evening with Barolo were like reading James Joyce, especially Ulysses. For those of you who have repressed the experience of reading Joyce or happened to miss that week in your Lit class, Joyce is widely regarded as the finest novelist in Western literature. The prose is dazzling and enormously rewarding when it isn’t impenetrable, which is most of the time, and reading him requires much expertise, encyclopedic knowledge of obscure references from Irish history to Ancient Greek mythology, and a monstrous concordance to keep track of it all. I’ve never made it through Ulysses despite several attempts—I’m just never persuaded its worth it.

Barolo is the Joyce of the wine world.

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