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More great Cabs than Pinots makes finding the great Pinot a real treat


I’ve maintained for a long time that I like equally California’s two greatest red wine–Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. You can’t say that one is better than the other because it’s not. Two different wines, often starkly different, for different purposes, meant to drink with different foods (mostly. A char-broiled filet mignon will happily adapt to either).

But then I had the occasion to look at my scores over the past year in the database, and found that at the very highest levels–97 and above–there’s considerably more Cabernet than Pinot. Then, in the mid-90 point range, that dominance actually increases. It’s not until you get to the low 90s (still very good scores) that the scales even out, with Pinot showing up in slightly greater numbers than Cabernet.

I find this fascinating, because in numbers are contained patterns, and patterns reveal underlying truths that sometimes escape our casual eyes.

One reason why Cabernet gets more very high scores than Pinot Noir is because it’s relatively easier to make great Cab than to make great Pinot. Cabernet is a more forgiving grape for the winemaker. It’s less susceptible to vintage variations, weather and local micro-terroir perturbations, probably because of its thicker skins. That is to say, it’s not as transparent a reflector of its terroir as Pinot Noir.

There are many fabulous California Cabernet Sauvignons (and Bordeaux blends) and if they open themselves to the accusation of similarity (they all tend to feel and taste the same due to their international style), that feeling and taste nonetheless rank them among the top wines of the world. If you have a liking for this style (and I do), it’s easy to taste as many Napa Valley Cabs as I do and find yourself routinely awarding them exceptionally high scores. At the level we’re talking about–95 points and above–the distinctions between them are really very minor. One wine might score 97 one day, 96 the next day, 98 the day after, due to natural vagaries. This style of Cabernet has been heavily influenced by a variety of factors (names like Michel Rolland, David Abreu and Philippe Melka keep popping up), more proof of the old adages, (1) imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and (2) if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.

Pinot Noir on the other hand, as I stated, is transparent. What that means to me is that the slightest discrepancy is instantly perceived. It may have a little too much acidity, or a tiny bit of veggie. The mouthfeel can be off in some subtle but noticeable way. It could be over-oaked. Pinot Noir loves oak, but since it does tend to be delicate, all that sweet toast and vanilla can swamp it. You remember that old tale of the Princess and the pea? She was so physically sensitive that she was disturbed in her sleep by a tiny little pea buried underneath 20 mattresses and featherbeds. That’s how it is with Pinot Noir.

I think that accounts for the skew in scoring. Pinot just reveals its flaws in a way that Cabernet, being bigger and more tannic, doesn’t. Cabernet is not better than Pinot Noir at the highest levels in California, but there are considerably more great Cabernets than there are great Pinot Noirs. That seems destined to remain the case. California has found the best places to grow Pinot Noir. I don’t think there are any dark horses waiting to be discovered along the coast. This means that acreage of the top sites is tapped out, or will be within a few years. Cabernet Sauvignon on the other hand has plenty of room to grow. There are so many hospitable places for it beyond Napa Valley: Lake County and Happy Canyon, to name but two. I expect in ten years the ratio of great Cabs to great Pinots will be even greater than it is today, but perhaps, in a funny way, that makes coming across a great Pinot Noir even more exciting, because you know how rare it is.

  1. Great article, and I have to agree whole-heartedly. I think the reason I tend to find myself chasing Pinots much more often than Cabs is exactly that elusiveness. I hunt down new and mysterious Pinots on a continuous basis at times completely forgetting how great Cabs can be, and the reason may just be that I know I can go to just about any reputable wine shop in town and pull a dozen fantastic Cabs off the shelf at any time. Good Pinots abound, but the great ones must be treasured while they last. Cheers!

  2. Thanks. Perfect timing. I was enjoying a really special Pinot last night and wondering why I encouter so few exceptional ones even though I always seem to be looking for them. It had been several months since I had tasted another Pinot I enjoyed as much. Outstanding Cabs seem to be much easier to find. You provide some excellent reasoning on this subject. Quite interesting.

  3. Adam Lee/Siduri Wines says:


    Couple of questions:

    1) If you looked over your scores from 5 years ago, what were the numbers and ratios like then? What can be extraplilated from that?

    2) How does another dense grape, which presumably also hides its faults well, such as Syrah rate?

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  4. Adam I don’t know when I’ll have time for (1) but on (2), my sense is that Syrah has more faults to begin with than Cabernet and doesn’t do a good job at all of hiding them.

  5. Adam Lee/Siduri Wines says:


    I was thinking more about the blog (which is a sign of a good blog) and wonder what effect you think vine age has on wine quality. So many of the Pinot Noir plantings are young (even compared to the post-phyloxera Cab plantings) — do you think that as the vines get older the fruit they produce is likely to improve?

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  6. Adam, I’m neutral on this one. Stags Leap won the 1976 Paris tasting with 3 year old vines, as I recall. I have never seen a trend toward higher scores with older vines, not even with so-called Old Vine Zinfandel. To me, the old vine thing is more of a marketing device.

  7. george kaplan says:

    About vine age: the Burgs do make that claim for pinot noir. The Bordelais don’t make such a big deal about it as a rule, and Warren Winiarski felt that varietal character was the big thing in Cabernet, not so much the wonders of old vines. It’s hard to compare in my view, because Burgundy and Cali Pinot are so different. For fruit-forward styles maybe vine age is less important.

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