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Pinot Noir vs. Cabernet Sauvignon

Erin O'Reilly - Certified Specialist of Wine

Pinot Noir vs Cabernet Sauvignon. How are these two grapes and wines different? These two red wine darlings of the wine world are not only different in body, weight, and style, but also in origin. If Cabernet is the heavyweight champion of wine, packing a punch that you won’t soon forget, then Pinot Noir is the dancer whose power is veiled under finesse and elegance.

As every wine story does, this one starts in the vineyard.

vineyards of red wine grapes

In the Vineyard: Pinot Noir vs. Cabernet

Pinot Noir hails from the Burgundy region of France and thrives in cooler, more temperate growing regions. Pinot Noir buds and ripens early, making it a variety that is better suited to mild climates where it doesn’t get over-ripened. The grape’s thin skin and tight clusters makes it susceptible to disease, mildew, and smoke taint (to name a few things), so viticulturalists and winemakers working with Pinot Noir need to time harvest perfectly to avoid overripeness or damage that can occur in response to weather and other events such as heavy rain, frost, smoke taint from fires, etc.

Pinot Noir is also a variety that is prone to mutate (mutation happens when a grape responds, necessarily, to environmental conditions in order to protect itself and sometimes, creates a new varietal in the process).

Are you familiar with Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, or Pinot Munier? All of these are famous Pinot Noir mutations.

Unlike Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon is a relatively new grape that came from a chance crossing in the Southwest of France back in the 1600s. Most botanists who study grapevines point towards the Bordeaux region as the grape’s birthplace. Cabernet Sauvignon has thick skins, a winning attribute that helps protect it from fungal disease common in certain wine regions.

Over the centuries, Cabernet Sauvignon rose to fame in the region of Bordeaux, a port city surrounded by gravely, well-draining soils, perfect for variety. Merchants exported French Bordeaux around the world and the grape gained in popularity with each passing vintage. Today, Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most popular and widely planted red wine grapes in the New World (in the U.S. and Australia particularly).

vineyards overlooking the ocean in Switzerland

Where are Pinot Noir and Cabernet Grown?

Pinot Noir produces world-class wines in almost every major wine region, including California, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, South Africa, and even Canada.

Cabernet Sauvignon is grown and produced in some of the most iconic wine regions in the world including, most famously, Bordeaux but also California, Washington, Chile, Argentina, Australia, Italy, and even New Zealand.

Note: Climate change currently threatens many of the growing regions planted with Cabernet Sauvignon vines. Hotter growing seasons lead to easier ripening, but also cause higher alcohol levels and lower acid, both of which will create an unbalanced wine. Growers around the world have started exploring ways to reduce vine heat stress, as well as look to new vineyard sites that will better suit this famous grape.

Cabernet Sauvignon vs. Pinot Noir: Body, Flavor, and Style

Both Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir grapes call France home, but the wines that they produce are worlds apart.

bundles of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes

What does Cabernet Sauvignon taste like?

Cabernet Sauvignon is a solid, full-bodied wine, often high in tannin and high in alcohol, generally above 13.5% ABV. The grape’s thick skins translate into opaque ruby wines that will stain your teeth and tongue.

A ripe Cabernet Sauvignon expresses black fruit, currant, black olive, black cherry, dusty notes, cedar, cigar box, and even pencil shavings. However, it’s also common to find characteristics of green bell pepper or other vegetal notes in Cabernet Sauvignon grown in certain cooler-climate regions, or harvested during cooler vintages.

These ‘green’ aromas and flavors are called methoxypyrazine. In warmer years, this same aroma compound presents itself as mint and sage.

Cabernet Sauvignon loves oak. Oak barrels help stabilize the wine’s color and smooth out those muscular tannins. Depending on the type of oak, the wine can express vanilla, spice, smoke, and even mocha.

More often than not, Cabernet Sauvignon will find itself a mellow blending partner, even if it’s only a small percentage of the wine, to balance tannin and alcohol levels. Traditionally, this role falls to Merlot, which offers luscious red and black fruit, medium tannins and medium acid. Blending helps tame Cabernet Sauvignon for earlier enjoyment.

a bundle of pinot noir grapes

What does Pinot Noir taste like?

While Cabernet Sauvignon prepares itself for a boxing match in your mouth, Pinot Noir dresses up in silky red fruits, crisp and inviting, expressing precocious cherry, juicy strawberry, and vibrant raspberry.

If Cabernet’s signature marker is tannin, then Pinot Noir is all about acid.

Thanks to its cooler growing conditions and early ripening, Pinot Noir maintains its acidity and has lower alcohol levels than most Cabernet Sauvignon wines.

Like Cabernet Sauvignon, the variety has a natural affinity for oak and can have notes of clove and smoke. These wines have the potential to develop incredible complexity as they age, with earth, game, and mushroom – a characteristic that makes them one of the most sought-after wines in the world.

Pinot Noir’s thin skins translate into lighter colored and lower (softer) tannin wines as its signature style.

If you dislike the chewy, mouth filling tannins often found in Cabernet Sauvignon, you will enjoy Pinot Noir’s lighter, smoother tannins.

Pinot Noir compared to Cabernet Sauvignon almost has a rosé quality about it in the glass. You should be able to see the stem of your glass clearly when looking down through it, but don’t let the color fool you into thinking this is an unassuming wine.

It’s easy to be plump, juicy, and fruity. It’s much harder to deliver elegance.

Winemaker’s need all of their skills to craft Pinot Noir. The grape’s tendency to produce lighter-colored wines led many winemakers in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s to implement winemaking techniques in order to extract as much color and tannin as possible from the grape skins to make a fuller-bodied wine (because American palates tended to lean towards bigger, fuller-bodied wines). Today, however, the potential of Pinot Noir to produce beautiful, complex, and age-worthy, lighter-bodied red wine has been realized in the U.S. and it could easily be said that some of the most compelling wines being made in West Coast wine regions are Pinot Noirs from regions such as the Willamette Valley, Sonoma Coast, and the Anderson Valley.

a glass of red wine surrounded by plates of fod

What Pairs Well with Pinot Noir?

Pinot Noir offers up a nuanced bouquet of red fruit that finds a natural partnership with risottos, roasted game, grilled salmon, and baked chicken among other dishes. Vegetarians will find Pinot Noir pairs beautifully with a hearty kale salad or even with an unassuming bowl of potato chips. The variety’s ability to maintain acidity makes it one of the world’s most versatile food wines.

What Pairs Well with Cabernet Sauvignon?

Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other hand, demands substantive food. This is not a cocktail wine, but rather a powerful, full-bodied, and tannic wine that can overwhelm delicate dishes. Rich foods, including roasted meats and stews, pair well with Cabernet Sauvignon, balancing out the wine’s full body. The richness and tannic structure of Cabernet Sauvignon complements heavy red meat dishes perfectly. If vegetarian fare is more your style, try Cabernet Sauvignon with roasted portobello mushrooms, lentil soup, or with grilled sharp cheeses.

Stay away from spicy foods for both Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Bold seasoning can overwhelm the nuanced complexity of Pinot Noir, and hot dishes will enhance perceptions of high alcohol and tannin when it comes to the Cabernet, making the wine seem rather unpleasant.

Finding the Perfect Bottle of Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon

Just like people, every wine has its own personality. The striking difference between Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon means that there’s a wine style for every taste. Whether you prefer a heavier and more tannic red wine like Cabernet, or a subtler and brighter red wine like Pinot Noir, we have something at Gold Medal Wine Club that will suit your tastes.

If you already happen to have a passion for Pinot, or know someone who does, then we invite you to learn more about our Pinot Noir Wine Club.