Pinot Noir vs Zinfandel: What’s the Difference?

pinot noir vs zinfandel

Pinot Noir is one of the most popular red wines in the world today, while Zinfandel is growing in popularity and can be seen as a pleasing if surprising choice. This has led wine enthusiasts to ask what the difference is between the two wines.

Pinot Noir is a high quality wine with a great deal of complexity in its flavor and body, with a price to match. Zinfandel is inexpensive by comparison, coming from hardier grapes that create a bolder, more alcoholic concoction.

There are further differences between Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, such as where they come from, how they were discovered, and what foods they pair with. This article will discuss how all of these factors separate Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.

Where do Pinot Noir and Zinfandel Come From?

Both Pinot Noir and Zinfandel have wildly different origins, coming from different grapes that were discovered in different times and places.

Pinot Noir, for instance, may be one of the oldest wine grapes ever discovered by mankind, being recorded by Roman soldiers fighting in what is today modern Burgundy. This was around the 1st century AD, although experts have yet to reach a verdict on whether the locals were cultivating the grapes before Roman soldiers found them.

As for the grapes themselves, they range from greyish blue to red and grow in thick bunches of small grapes on the vine. In fact, the wine’s name, Pinot Noir, means “black pine” in French, a reference to how the dark, tightly packed bunches of grapes resemble black pine cones. This is offset by how few bunches are found on Pinot Noir vines, and by their environmental needs.

Pinot Noir grapes are notoriously difficult to grow, needing a long, cool, and consistent growing season with just the right balance of rain, as too much will destroy the vines while too little will cause the grapes to shrivel. This high maintenance cost combined with very low crop yields contributes to both the price and the prestige of Pinot Noir wine.

You can read more about this in our full overview of Pinot Noir here.

Zinfandel, on the other hand, is a much shorter yet also much stranger origin story, most likely coming from a Croatian grape strain introduced to southern Italy and America in the mid-1800s. Although where exactly Zinfandel grapes came from, as well as where and when they got their start in the wine industry, are still a matter of some debate.

What is not in question is what Zinfandel grapes look like, growing in large clusters with distinctive black skins. They grow on long bunches, often with several dozen hanging from each vine, leading to noticeably higher yields for Zinfandel vineyards compared to others.

In stark contrast to Pinot Noir, Zinfandel is a remarkably hardy strain that grows better in warm temperatures and is fine in congested growing conditions. Most grapes will wither on the vine if grown in too much heat or if grown too close with other vines, but Zinfandel excels in hot environments and when clustered tightly together.

This combination of high yield and robustness contributes to Zinfandel’s lower price compared to other red wines. Since it grows in large bunches and on less expensive farmland, these savings are passed along to consumers without necessarily lowering the quality of the wine.

For more on what makes Zinfandel tick make sure to see our full overview of Zinfandel here.

Pinot Noir’s ancient origins and high maintenance growing needs differentiate it with the less well understood, but much heartier Zinfandel.

Due to a milder climate many Oregon vineyards are known for producing very high quality Pinot Noirs while the best Zinfandels tend to come from warmer places in California like Napa and Sonoma valleys.

What do Pinot Noir and Zinfandel Taste Like?

Although they are both red wines, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel have some marked differences in taste and texture.

Pinot Noir is famous for its complex, fruity flavor similar to cherries and raspberries, with small hints of earthy wood and mushrooms to finish. This is complimented by the light body and dry acidity.

What Dry Wine Tastes Like
Acidity vs Tannins

It should be noted that the flavor and body of Pinot Noir change somewhat depending on when and where they were harvested. Cooler climates result in a lighter body and a more delicate flavor, while warmer climates create a fuller body and a higher alcohol content, something to keep in mind when looking for Pinot Noir.

On the subject of alcohol content, Pinot Noir averages between 11% and 13% ABV, or alcohol by volume. This is slightly higher than the average at 11% ABV, but this varies for Pinot Noir based on the climate where it is grown, as warmer climates mean more alcohol and colder climates mean less alcohol. This is not to say that Pinot Noir can’t get up into the 15% range, but it’s rare, and probably a sign on something that happened during the vintage, or a winemakers preference in style.

Zinfandel has a complexity all its own, starting with sweeter flavors that are easy to enjoy, similar to jam, berries, and plums. This sweet introduction ends surprisingly, however, with strong notes of smoke and spice similar to barbeque. Zinfandel also has a fuller body than Pinot Noir.

What Does Full Bodied Wine Mean

Climate does have an effect on the flavor of Zinfandel, though not quite as prominent as in Pinot Noir. These changes in flavor are harder to predict so it is better to look up individual climates and wineries rather than look for a rule of thumb.

Zinfandel packs a noticeable punch thanks to a 14% to 17% ABV rating, which is markedly higher than both the standard for wine and Pinot Noir. This increased alcohol content adds strength and boldness to the drink, making it great for more daring wine enthusiasts.

These wildly contrasting flavors are another point of difference between Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.

What do Pinot Noir and Zinfandel Pair With?

As Pinot Noir and Zinfandel have different flavors and textures, they pair better with different foods.

As a general rule for Pinot Noir, a lighter cooler climate bottle will pair better with milder foods while fuller bodied bottlings can pair with stronger flavors. For example, a light Pinot Noir pairs great with cold chicken on a picnic, while mature earthy Pinot Noir pairs beautifully with meats like lamb, venison, and goose.

This ability to pair based on strength and lightness makes Pinot Noir a highly versatile dinner wine. Keep in mind what pairs best with the meal you are planning when picking up a bottle at the store.

Zinfandel also pairs with a diverse range of flavors, working best with meats like beef but also with tomato-based pasta dishes.

Due to Zinfandel’s low cost, it can be easily and deliciously paired with some common dishes you might not associate with wine. For example, Zinfandel goes great with chili or pizza, and not just artisanal, restaurant grade meals either. This makes Zinfandel a good wine for impromptu parties and other informal gatherings. A real treat is good Texas bbq with all it’s smokey sweetness and a matching bold Zinfandel.

While they both have a diverse range of pairs, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel pair with different foods for very different reasons.

Exploration of Different Wines

Pinot Noir’s rising popularity and Zinfandel’s accessibility have led some to ask what the difference is between the two red wines.

Pinot Noir is a layered wine, light bodied with a fruitier flavor that changes depending on where and when it is grown. It is high maintenance and difficult to grow, but its complex tastes and diverse food pairings make it worth the extra expense.

Zinfandel, by contrast, is a bold wine with strong flavors of sweet, smoky, and spicy, combined with a high alcohol content. While it may be less nuanced in taste, the wine’s boldness and affordability let it pair well with a wide array of foods both high class and informal.

I recommend you try both of these wines in low cost table wine form and compare them to higher cost premium bottles.

Also, make sure to compare them to other common varietals side-by-side in your own small wine tasting. This can be a fun learning experience for even the most sophisticated palette. To start off you can read more of our varietal comparisons to get you started.

We have dedicated comparisons of Pinot Noir to other wine types that may interest you including: Syrah, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, and Pinot Grigio.

We also have dedicated comparisons of Zinfandel to many other wine types including: Chianti, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Shiraz.