Pinot Noir vs Malbec: The Differences Explained

Pinot Noir vs Malbec

Not known for being as big and bold as Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, Pinot Noirs and Melbecs may be good wines to have on hand for leaner or lighter dinners with guests. However, these two wines are distinctly different.

What is the difference between a Pinot Noir and a Malbec?

Pinot Noir is typically a light bodied, light colored, low tannin red wine that is easy to serve and drink while Malbecs are usually bolder, higher in tannins, and darker in color. They are a bridge wine between Pinot Noirs and fuller bodied, bold red wines. 

Pinot Noirs have become much more popular over the past few decades, while Malbecs have slipped quietly under the radar in the United States. We’ll go into more detail of the origins and flavors of these two wines further into this article but in case that’s all you needed to know then let me point you in the direction of a couple articles here on the site that may help explain to you what some of those differences actually mean:

What Are Tannins Exactly Anyway?

What “Full Bodied Wine” Actually Means

Origin and Profile of Pinot Noir

Like many other popular grape varieties, Pinot Noir originated in the Bordeaux region of France, but unlike many other varieties, Pinot Noir is ancient in origin. Some researchers have speculated that the grape variety is only one or two generations removed from wild grapes.

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.

The Pinot Noir grape is grown in cooler climates such as the Willamette Valley in Oregon and 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 but 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 grapes’ wine-making 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 an off dry, or demi-sec, wine, 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.

Make sure to see the following article for a more substantial overview of Pinot Noir.

Origin and Profile of Malbec

Malbec is a much more recent variety of grape compared to Pinot Noir. However, due to several different names for the same grape, it is hard to distinguish it’s true origin. Notes trace it back to about 16th century France, likely originating from the Bordeaux region, though it wasn’t recorded as the name Malbec until about the 1780s. Pinot Noir is one of the most popular varietal wines in the world, shortly after Cabernet Sauvignon, and is one of the varieties used to make sparkling wine.

The variety has had several setbacks that resulted in a lack of growth in its popularity, including 75% of the harvest of malbec grapes being ruined in 1956. A surge of popularity occurred in Argentina in the 1800s, making it the most popular variety there. Grapes from other regions are used to make red wine blends, especially Bordeaux style blends. The grape ripens mid season but requires much more heat than other hot climate loving wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon.

The greatest number of plantings in California include Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, and Paso Robles. Look for Malbecs from other wine growing regions internationally, such as Argentina, to experience a variety of styles and flavors.

Malbec grapes produce wine that is deep in color with plenty of tannins and plum notes. Good Malbecs should be fairly dry, though lower quality Malbecs may have more residential sugar than typical. Therefore, Malbecs should not be artificially sweet, allowing the fruit notes of the wine to bring the flavor.

Being a fuller bodied wine that’s higher in tannins than Pinot Noirs, Malbecs should breathe for about thirty minutes before serving. The wine can be served at or just slightly below room temperature. Malbec can be served from a standard red wine glass, not needing a special or large bowl to open up the aromas. These wines will also become more enjoyable as they age as the tannins soften over time.

Differences between Pinot Noir and Malbec

Pinot Noirs and Malbecs are substantially different wines. Pinot Noirs tends to be lighter, easier drinking, wines that are great for new wine drinkers, while Malbecs tends to have bolder, full bodied flavors, necessitating proper serving for a full experience. Both wines can have blackberry and other dark fruit notes, but Malbec is definitely the meatier of the two wines.

Many may consider both wines to be easy to drink, especially when compared to a Cabernet or Merlot, but for some the Malbec may pack a much harder punch than the Pinot Noir.

Malbecs have softer tannins than other full bodied reds, like Cabernet Sauvignons, which means that it can be paired with leaner cuts of meat like sirloin or flank steak, or even chicken or lamb. Pinot Noirs can have a range of flavors depending on its terroir, which means that it can pair with roasted chicken or pasta, even up to beef stew or bourguignon.

Since the flavor notes can range with both these wines, pay special attention to the grape growing region, the age, and alcohol content of both wines to determine if the wine warrants a heavier or lighter pairing.

Pinot Noirs have a lower alcohol content than Malbecs, ranging between 11-14% ABV, where Malbecs are typically between 13.5-15% ABV.

Both wines pair well with dark chocolate, so break out a bottle with a rich dessert for date night to really compare and pick which one suits your tastes!

And now with all of that out of the way, let’s briefly answer a few questions our readers typically have about these two wines:

► Is Malbec Healthier Than Pinot Noir?
Both Malbec and Pinot Noir are generally considered to be two of the healthiest red wines you can drink. Low sugar content of Pinot Noir usually means these wines have lower calorie counts and thicker skins of Malbecs usually mean they have more antioxidants in them. The majority of people tend to give the nod to Pinot Noir over Malbec in terms of healthiest for you but it is close.

► Is Either Pinot Noir or Malbec Typically Dry or Sweet?
Pinor Noirs tend to be fruity and light bodied and somewhat dry whereas Malbec wines tend to be slightly sweeter than Pinot Noirs on average but not by much. In fact many high-end Malbecs will have even less residual sugar putting them squarely in the dry category. There are exceptions to these tendencies but you will usually find well educated wine enthusiasts sorting both of these wines categorically onto the semi-dry wine list.

► Which Wine Is The Smoothest or Easy Drinking?
Pinot Noir is well known to be very light bodied and easy drinking. In fact it’s probably one of the easiest types of red wine to drink. Malbec is more tannic and bolder and although it’s not a full-bodied wine it still has more body to it making it a little richer. Although some would consider the richness of red wine to be smooth I tend to think of easy drinking when I think of smooth so I would give the nod to Pinot Noir over Malbec on this one.

► Does Pinot Noir or Malbec Ages Well?
Most Pinot Noirs should age for a couple of years but not usually more than five. As always there are exceptions to this general rule of thumb. Malbec on the other hand is a bit more tannic and as such it does better at aging although you aren’t going to find many Malbecs aged over 10 years tops. If you are looking for wines that can age for a long time then you’ll want to look into Cabernet Sauvignons, Ports, and Sangioveses, each of which can easily age for a couple of decades or longer.

Make sure to see this article on why wine tastes better with age to learn a bit more about this concept.

Lastly, if you found this comparison helpful then you may find some of our other wine varietal comparisons helpful too.

We have dedicated comparisons of Pinot Noir to other wine types that may help you understand it all a bit better. Each comparison is listed here for your convenience: Syrah, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, and Zinfandel.

And here are our other comparison pieces of Malbec to the following varietals: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel.