Zinfandel vs Cabernet Sauvignon: What’s the Difference?

One of the most fun aspects of wine is trying to decide what to drink on any given night. It can also be one of the more challenging aspects, with thousands of varieties to choose from and hundreds of thousands of labels. To help answer that question, we have written a few articles about the differences between wines commonly seen on a grocery store shelf or restaurant wine list. Check out the rest of the series here:

  • What’s the Difference between Zinfandel and Chianti?
  • What’s the Difference between Pinot Noir and Syrah/Shiraz?
  • What’s the Difference between Merlot and Syrah/Shiraz?
  • What’s the Difference between Merlot and Chianti?

Now, onto the main question: what are the differences between Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon? First, let’s look at these two grapes separately and explain a little of their history, and outline the most common examples that you’ll see out in the world.

Zinfandel is widely known as California’s flagship grape. It is most widely planted in California, and the best-known examples in the world come from there. While Chardonnay and Cabernet have more plantings in California, it is Zinfandel that differentiates the US on an international level. Originally brought from Italy, where it is known as Primitivo, it has now been proven that Zinfandel came from Croatia initially, where it is called Tribidrag.

One of the more popular wines in the US, Zinfandel has gone in and out of style. The wines tend to be full bodied, high alcohol, deeply colored, and taste of ripe berry pie or jam. Lately, more restrained examples have been emerging with lower alcohol levels, higher acidity, and more herbal and savory character. This is especially due to the resurgence of old-vine Zinfandel, which give more savory character and complexity than the younger vines, which produce larger berries and more jammy versions. Sonoma County and Paso Robles are especially well known for their Zinfandel’s, where many of the old-vineyards can be dry farmed and left mostly to themselves. However, there are still plenty of high yielding Central Valley vineyards which make gallons upon gallons of the juicy style of Zinfandel that you see in corner stores around the country.

Cabernet Sauvignon became famous as a component of the Bordeaux blend of wines from the Bordeaux region in Central-Coastal France. It is a cross of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc, both also grown in the Bordeaux region. However, Cabernet Sauvignon is a totally different animal from its parent grapes. Since the 1800’s it has spread all across the world, with renowned wines made from the grape in California, Australia, Chile, Argentina, Italy, and its native France. It is grown in almost every other wine region in the world, whether it is renowned or not. This is in large part due to the ability of Cabernet to show very complex flavors and age well, amongst other factors. The fact that some of the most expensive wines in the world have, and most likely always will be, Cabernet Sauvignon-based, helps to explain its allure to the wine world.

Flavor wise, Cabernet Sauvignon tastes of black cherries, currant, cedar, green bell pepper, mint, and/or black olive depending on the region. From cooler climates, the currant, bell pepper, and cedar notes dominate, and from warmer climates the black cherry and black olive notes are more prominent. In very warm regions, such as Australia, or Napa in warm years, the wines can be jammy and very juicy. However, regardless of region Cabernet tends to have high acidity, and a full bodied and tannic character that lends to its ability to age. Many of the most age worthy wines in the world are largely made of Cabernet Sauvignon, like in Bordeaux, Southwest Australia, Napa Valley, and in the Super Tuscans of the Italian Coast west of Chianti. Often, Cabernet is blended with other grapes like Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, Syrah/Shiraz, or Petite Sirah.

In comparing Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, the question is one of your preferred restraint: do you want a more balanced, complex style of wine, with power and finesse, or do you want to drink a fruit juggernaut with explosive flavor? Cabernet is the former, and Zinfandel is the latter. While of course there are fruity, jammy Cabernets and lighter, more balanced Zinfandels, the reality is that most of what is on the market falls into the classic categories listed above. Both pair pretty well with the same food, though Bordeaux, a lighter style of Cabernet-based wine, can be paired more easily with slightly lighter dishes like a beef stew or pan-seared pork chop. Zinfandel and Cabernet pair equally well with steak, many types of barbecue (though sauce-heavy styles would do better with Zinfandel), and other meat-based main entrees. The question is a preference one: do you like more tannic wines, in which case go with Cabernet? Or do you like an easy-drinking “smooth” style, in which case the better option would be Zinfandel? On their own, Cabernet tends to be a better bet, as it is a night well spent slowly drinking a bottle of Cabernet, and pairing it with various items through the night: steak dinner, dark chocolate, a cigar. Cabernet will evolve and change in the glass and in the bottle as you drink it. Zinfandel will do so also, but considerably less so, and the change tends to be less interesting. Aging potential is also much better for Cabernet Sauvignon. However, if price becomes a factor, the world’s best Zinfandels can be had for less than $100 per bottle, while the world’s best Cabernets are positively stratospheric in pricing, with some reaching $6-7,000 per bottle for young bottlings. Older bottlings can be even more expensive. Most of us won’t be reaching for a $6000+ bottle of wine anytime soon, and the reality is that both Zinfandel and Cabernet can be found at much more reasonable price points. And both are delicious, depending on which style of wine you are looking for on a particular night!