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Pinot Noir vs. Cabernet Sauvignon: the smackdown!


I was thinking why I haven’t given as many high scores to Pinot Noir as to Cabernet Sauvignon, when I realized there’s a perfectly good reason. Can you guess why?

It’s not because I don’t believe California Pinot Noir isn’t as great as Cabernet. It is, although Cabernet’s been great for a much longer time than Pinot. And I don’t think it’s because I have some preconceived notion that Pinot Noir can’t score as highly as Cabernet, although I admit that, if I did have such a notion, I might not be consciously aware of it. People have asked me why Sauvignon Blanc (for example) never scores as highly as Chardonnay. Is it due to something inherent in Sauvignon Blanc, or something in me?

Well, Sauvignon Blanc is a topic for future reflection. Right now, the answer to the question why I don’t score Pinot as highly as Cabernet is because Pinot Noir goes wrong much more often than Cabernet. And I do mean at the highest levels.

A grape chemist can explain to you why Pinot is a more transparent wine than Cabernet. There are some critics out there who like to throw around technical terms, like anthocyanins, without a proper understanding of what they are or do. I’m not one of them. I’ll let the enologists deal with that, if they agree to stay away from reviewing wines.

But Pinot is more transparent than Cabernet. Cabernet is a heavy wine. It’s tannic and full-bodied, and often very oaky, and sometimes, when I’m tasting a Cabernet, I imagine a large, furry animal in my mouth. With such a wine, flaws can be hidden, to a reasonable degree. A little too much or too little acidity? There’s room in Cabernet for a margin of error either way. Tough tannins? Cabernet is forgiving. To some extent, you want tough tannins in a proper Cabernet, which is what makes it ageable. Some herbaceousness indicating less than properly ripened fruit? Not a problem. There’s generally so much fruit in a California Cabernet that a touch of green olives and herbs is welcome. What I’m looking for in Cabernet is richness, and I find it more often than not in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which is why I’ve given so many (Vine Cliff, Araujo, Alpha Omega, Venge, Krutz, Au Sommet, Paul Hobbs, Vineyard 7&8, Macauley, Long Meadow Ranch, Moone-Tsai, Staglin) such high scores this year alone.

But the margin of error for Pinot Noir is considerably narrower. Or maybe a better way of saying it is that Pinot Noir is so transparent that, ultimately, it’s the most unforgiving variety. There was a book a while back, The Heartbreak Grape, about Josh Jensen, at Calera, and “a heartbreaker” is exactly what Pinot Noir is. Pinot either is perfect, or it isn’t. And the sad truth is that 99.99999% of Pinot Noir is never perfect, meaning that there is an almost existential certainty that when you taste one, no matter how great it is, you’re going to mourn the fact that something, somewhere, is wrong.

It could be anything. For me, when acidity is off in Pinot Noir, it’s jarring. Too much, and the wine has a mean, nasty streak, like a yappy little dog that nips at your ankles. I hate that, and will take 5 or 6 points off a Pinot for that reason alone. And don’t tell me that high acidity will help a California Pinot age. It won’t–especially when the winemaker added it after the fact.

A little sweetness in Cabernet isn’t a flaw and, as a matter of fact, can be a virtue, if you have a California palate, as I do. Almost all the wines I listed above taste sweet. Cabernet wants that lush, chocolatey richness; it tolerates it well, the way a big-boned person can look good while packing away a few extra pounds. But sweetness in Pinot Noir sticks out like a sore thumb. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lowered a score because the wine turned sugary at the last moment.

The herbaceousness I mentioned that can be good in Cabernet is a severe minus in Pinot Noir. Just a trace of green, from unripe seeds or stems or whatever, can overwhelm an otherwise nice Pinot, making it sharp and minty. Not good. On the other hand, too much caramelized oak on Pinot is the worst thing in the world. I think you could probably give a good Napa Cabernet the exact same new oak treatment as a Pinot, only in Cabernet’s case it would be fine, whereas the Pinot would be a disaster.

I’ve gone through only a couple differences between Pinot and Cabernet, but the bottom line is that Pinot is so fickle and finicky that it screams out every possible little thing that’s wrong with it. Cabernet seduces and charms. It’s easy to fall in love with Cabernet and have a great time with it, never noticing little flaws because it’s so entrancing. And that’s why I give more high scores, and higher scores, to Cabernet Sauvignon than to Pinot Noir.

  1. Steve,

    Do you have a “Magical 10” or so pinot producers that you’ve noticed you’ve given consistently good scores year-end, year-out…people you think actually “get it” in terms of how CA or OR pinot should be made?


  2. I absolutely agree with everything you said. You can go into a Safeway and pick almost any Cabernet on the third shelf (from the bottom) and it will usually be very drinkable. This is not the case for Pinot, even if you pick from the top shelf. It’s hit or miss.

    I’ve had so much bad pinot, and you know from the first sip that it’s bad. It’s as if just prior to corking the bottle someone sprayed a can of Raid into it.

  3. “Pinot either is perfect, or it isn’t.” Interesting comment, you hear variations on this theme often regarding Burgundy.

    I was wondering if your scores reflect this, i.e. the Cab scores are distributed on a fairly even slope down the scale, but the Pinot scores show a cluster at the top and then a big dropoff in numbers until the middling ratings.

  4. Steve Hare says:

    Pinot Noir wine fundamentally changed in 1980 when “Gamay Beaujolais” could legally be called Pinot Noir (clone 105). Now granted there has been alot of Pinot under the bridge between then and now but it’s essentially the same story…a real lack of specific varietal definition (or is it the terroir or the clone or the ????) contributes to confusing the consumers (and, perhaps, our friends in the media as well).

  5. Christian, I think that reflects what I wrote about. Pinot either approaches perfection, or it lets you down in a big way.

  6. I guess this is why some producers make Power Pinot that tastes like S. Rhone Grenache. Finesse is hard because it leaves no room for error. Extract for body and mouthfeel, then let it absorb the oak. Covers up for lack of complexity or elegance.

  7. Even with its challenges and perceived flaws as detected by an expert generalist, there are those fanboys and girls who prefer this wine over Cabs, etc. They may be seeking or have found “perfection” in some releases, but they generally just like the style and the taste characteristics that go with this varietal. So shouldn’t it follow that Pinot drinkers would turn to a reviewer that shares in this grape preference to critique various examples (and there are several critics who fall in this camp). Why depend on someone who doesn’t easily fall in love with Pinot Noir. Better yet why not tap into a range of tastes of those who are attracted to this wine per the recent post citing the importance of capturing online consumer opinion.

  8. I basically agree with your analysis…particularly with respect to California Pinot, which is a totally different animal from Burgundy or Oregon Pinot. California Pinot is in a class of it’s own, and not a true Pinot class in my humble opinion.

    I love California Cabs….California Pinots on the other hand are at or near the bottom of my world wide list of good Pinots. It seems that California Pinots really want to be Cabs and thus miss the mark in both categories.

    Bottom line: not sure Cabs and Pinots should be compared at all.

  9. Steve,
    What exactly do you mean by “[a] little sweetness in Cabernet isn’t a flaw and, as a matter of fact, can be a virtue, if you have a California palate, as I do”?
    Are you referring to Cabs deliberately made with some residual sugar (above 4g/L?), or to the glycerol (and other polyalcohols) flavor present in dry wines, that is enhanced by high alcohol levels?
    This point seems particularly important, since most trained palates do not normally tolerate Cabernet Sauvignon that is not fermented to dryness.

  10. While it is much easier to find a great Cabernet than a Pinot, a great Cab is only great, a great Pinot is celestial.

  11. I agree with Morton. I think saying Cabernet is chocolaty and that isn’t a flaw is a palate that is blind to anything but California Cabernet. There’s a reason Parker likes Bordeaux, because its tastes like Cabernet without the added sugar and alcohol. I’m not always a Parker fan, but I get tired of Napa Cab. They all try and work from the same formula. Silver Oak uses all American Oak. Rubicon uses a ton of it. Del Dotto & Orin Swift are over oak Extraction kings! These are aren’t flaws? At least Pinot Noir has diversity and a sense of place.
    When you taste Pinot from SLH it doesn’t come close to Russian River or Sonoma Coast. Oregon Pinot is a Burghound’s dream. They tend to express the terroir of their location much better than cabernet. Perfection is never going to happen, unless your palate is driven to that varietal or style of wine. Everyone has a biased to their favorite varietal. Perhaps tastings and scorings should be driven by experts in that particular varietal. Cab & Pinot are like apples and oranges. Not worth comparing. They are great wines of world class caliber. No need to say one is better than the other. I’ve seen more crappy cabs in Napa than mediocre pinot’s. Based on price you can get equal quality wines. I like them equally, but prefer diversity rather than just good and the same.

  12. Steve
    Wooden palate. Stick with the obvious. Mark

  13. Peter O’Connor, I mean the appearance of sweetness, or apparent sweetness. Most of the better Cabernets I taste are fermented to dryness, yet they still taste sweet and rich. I’ve tried for years to figure out why. It’s probably a combination of glycerol, caramelized oak and the brain’s tendency to infer sweetness to fruity tastes.

  14. I sell wine for a living. I do not care for California Pinot Noirs at all, I prefer Burgundy. That said, I sell Pinot….most Napa winemakers seem to over-extract to get a dark color that compares with Cabernet. They also oak it to death, to go up against their Cabernets. It makes me wonder where they learned to make Pinot, while they were making Cabernets? If I cannot describe any food that will go with the Pinot (and most do not go with food) they I will say it has “great acidity, so it should go with food”. The operative word is “should.” I will not drink most Napa Pinots, but a lot of people will buy them because they do not have the tannins of a Cabernet.

  15. Cato, well, different strokes for different folks, right?

  16. Please don’t forget that, outside of the real high end Pinots, the vast majority of California Pinot Noir is 75% watery plonk (AKA Pinot Noir) and the rest a mix of Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and MegaPurple. Just sayin’…

  17. Paul G
    You must think $15 is high end. Have fun drinking cheap sweet Cab. Try Australia. If you haven’t already made up your small mind, try G Squared- good Carneros Pinot, raised in barrels, for $15. But maybe you’re happier with your attitude and no Pinot. Bunt.

  18. I have no doubt that everything you say is true, but give me a good pinot noir any day!

  19. Here’s my take. I drink a glass of wine every night and I’m in my 50s. 90% of the time it’s Cabernet Sauvignon the other 10% it’s a Pinot. I am no expert, but I can tell you straight away that the Cabernet is by far more consistant and dryer than any Pinot, that is of course the Pinot I can afford :)I only buy the Pinot for something different from time to time. For rich foods the Pinot does well, but its just too sweet for me. Given my choice it’s Cabernet all the way. Ironically, howeever, I am sitting here with a glass of California Pinot right now. I always say, it’s not what your drinking that is important, it is who you’re with and right now I am with a lovely young lady of manifest grace and charm.

  20. Steve for the win! By far the best conclusion of all comments!

  21. Marina Rousseau says:

    As a good wine drinker and expertise , first of all nobody can says anuthing when you refer as palate, as a wine maker you have your opinion, but as a consumer….. PINOT NOIR is a delicate, elegant and very well tolerate by our stomach than any other wine, for me is a perfect wine for all palates.


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