Pinot Noir vs Cabernet Sauvignon: The Differences Explained

Pinot Noir vs Cabernet Sauvignon

Two of the most popular wines in the United States, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, have dramatically different characteristics that polarize the wine tasting community. Both wines are commonly found at dinner parties with a range of guests.

So what is the difference between a Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir?

Cabernet Sauvignons are full bodied, dark colored, tannic wines that pack a bold punch. Pinot Noirs are lighter bodied and colored, and are low in tannins, making them much easier to drink. Both wines are hugely popular but cater to much different preferences in wine flavors. 

We’ll explain why these wines are so different, where they originated, and the flavors that make them crowd favorites.

Origin and Profile of Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir originated in the Burgundy region of France and has been cultivated for potentially over a thousand years. Some researchers have speculated that the grape variety is only one or two generations removed from wild grapes and one of the earliest cultivated varietal wines.

Many other grape varieties claim parentage from the renowned Pinot Noir, either by clone, mutation, or cross with another variety, resulting in over 50 recognized varieties in France, compared to 25 varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir is in the top ten most planted grape varieties in the world, though still a long while away from catching up to the Cabernet at number one.

The Pinot Noir grape is grown in cooler climates such as the Willamette Valley in Oregon and the Central Coast of California. The compact grapes are susceptible to rot due to natural, tight forming clusters. The vines themselves are prone to diseases such as powdery mildew. These factors combined make the variety hard to grow successfully. Additionally, the flavors are greatly impacted by the environmental conditions where it’s grown, known as the
terroir in French.

Pinot noir grapes typically produce a red wine that is light bodied, low in phenolic compounds, and low in tannins. The quality of the winemaking process can have a significant impact on the ability to age the wine. New, young, Pinot Noirs have notes of strawberries, cherries, and other berries. Older wines age to develop notes of earthy or barnyard flavors. It is typically dry though it’s light body and fruity flavors make it seem sweeter.

One of the aspects of Pinot Noir that makes it popular is that the wine can be served straight from the bottle without needing to breathe or decant to be enjoyable. Pinot Noirs are best served slightly chilled from a large, bell shaped glass.

For more info make sure to see this overview of Pinot Noir.

Origin and Profile of Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon was cultivated in 17th century France as a cross between a Sauvignon Blanc and a Cabernet Franc. It grew to popularity as a variety in the Bordeaux region of France. In France the grape has traditionally been blended with other varieties, most famously as one of the key varieties in the Bordeaux 6 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere). 

Warm climates bring out the flavors in this wine to make it a strong varietal wine. A varietal wine is where just one grape is used to make the wine, as opposed to a blend of grapes. In warm climates, like Napa Valley, the soil is less important to the flavor of the wine. Well draining soil that radiates heat back to the vine helps ripen and improve the flavor of the grapes. 

In the 1970s, a Cabernet Sauvignon from California was entered in a blind taste test in Paris, ultimately winning against well established, world-renowned French vineyards. Today, Cabernet is  the most grown wine variety in the world. 

Varietal Cabernet Sauvignons are high in tannins, mildly acidic, and mid to dry. However, climate and soil can have a big impact on the final result of the wine. For example, Cabernet Sauvignons that are grown on the valley floor of Napa Valley tend to be less robust than the wines grown on the rocky, hilly slopes. These wines tend to have bigger, bolder flavors and may require years to age before reaching a prime drink ability. They also average higher alcohol contents, often exceeding 14%. 

High end versions of California Cabernet use oak barrels for aging, resulting in some oak aromas in the finished wines. These wines have flavors of black currant, blackberry, jams, or black cherries and plum. However, if the grapes are harvested too ripe, the wine can have a unique flavor of green bell peppers. 

Select Cabernets that are at least a few years older than their vintage, but take an opportunity to lay down a couple of high-quality wines to enjoy them after ten or more years. 

Pinot Noir vs Cabernet Sauvignon

If you are trying to choose between a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Sauvignon for your next dinner or party, consider your menu, the tastes of your guests, and your time constraints. 

Pinot Noirs can be served straight from the bottle, not requiring the time to decant and breathe that Cabernets do. However, Pinot Noirs are better paired with lighter savory dishes, like roasted chicken, game birds, or stews. Cabernets would be better for steak dinners, grilling burgers, or mushroom based dishes. For dessert, Cabs go better with rich, thick desserts, like chocolate lava cake or blackberry cobbler, where a Pinot could be served with slightly lighter desserts, such as chocolate mousse with strawberries. 

Some guests might prefer the high tannins that give Cabernet the astringent feel, but other guests might prefer the low tannins in Pinot Noir that won’t give their mouth the same shock. However, since Pinot Noirs might have a lighter, more elegant flavor, some guests may feel the flavor is thin, or lacks a punch. 

Regardless of the menu, you might provide your guests both wines as options. With both wines being so popular, having the dynamic duo at your next party will surely help please everyone.