Updated: Mar 9
Of the thousands of grape varieties that can be made into red wine, only a pair of them— Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir— stand out as absolutely supreme, responsible for the vast majority of the very finest and most expensive wines in the world. If they both make fantastic wine, then how are they alike and how do they differ?
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To provide the proper framework for comparing the top two red wine grapes, a little history and botany review is in order. First, recall that King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti. That’s the mnemonic device used by high school biology students of yesteryear to remember their taxonomy, i.e., the categorization of life forms into Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species.
For the grapes responsible for the wines we drink, it goes like this, as per the 2016 APG IV system of plant classification:
Kingdom— Plantae (Plants)
Phylum— Magnoliophyta (Flowering plants)
Class— Magnoliopsida (Flowering plants that produce seeds)
Order— Vitales (Flowering Vines)
Family— Vitaceae (Flowering Vines, and the “only child” of the Order Vitales)
Genus— Vitis (Grapevines of all types, 79 species)
Species— Vitis vinifera (5,000 -10,000 varieties)
We’ve narrowed our focus, but the hierarchy continues in our trek up the pyramid, atop which the two Royal Brothers reign alone and supreme. Of the thousands of vinifera varieties, only a small percentage (still numbering in the hundreds, mind you) are capable of yielding wines of distinctive and agreeable character above and beyond their alcoholic content and refreshing acidity. And of these, perhaps only a dozen each of the red and white varieties are responsible for just about all the wines we see in our stores, whether they are labeled by grape variety (“varietal wines”) or by region of origin.
You will likely recognize most of the major white grape names– Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer, and (as of late) Moscato. And of the reds, we know well the names Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, and Zinfandel. But there are others– some widely-planted grapes never become famous because they are useful for quantity over quality. (Ever hear of Trebbiano or Carignan? You’ve probably consumed many gallons of one and/or the other without realizing it.) Other grape varieties go out of style… Chenin Blanc was once more widely planted than Chardonnay in California, and it was so ubiquitous that a bottle of it was even featured in the original TOP GUN. Still other perfectly good or even great grapes remain anonymous to the general public because A) they are pretty much specific to a particular region; and B) said region maintains a tradition of labeling wines by geographical origin rather than grape variety. This perfectly describes Nebbiolo, the grape that gives us Piemonte’s fabulous Barolo and Barbaresco; as well as Toscana’s Sangiovese, the main component of Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino.
Of the two dozen or so grape variety names that appear on wine labels, a subset are unofficially considered “noble grapes”-- a term with no firm definition, so I’ll take it from here: A noble grape variety is one that had proved capable of producing world-class wine in multiple regions around the world. Among the whites, we readily acknowledge Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc as such. The list of noble reds is a little longer– Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Syrah, followed closely by Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and maybe Tempranillo. And as region-specific as they are, it is somewhat nonsensical to exclude Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, as the sheer excellence of their finest manifestations surely justifies their inclusion. Some wine geeks regard only six varieties (three red and three white) as noble, while other sources cite as many as eighteen; it doesn’t really matter. To me, and for our purposes here, what matters most is that of all the millions of species of plant life in that “King Phillip” hierarchy, we need only consider TWO as the source of the most exquisite liquids on this planet– Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.
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"God made Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas the Devil made Pinot Noir."
–Andre Tchelistcheff, legendary Californian Winemaker (1901-1994)
I disagree. I believe that Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are both Divine creations, each heavenly in its own way, albeit very different from one another… two contrasting aspects of heavenly magnificence. In its finest versions, Cabernet Sauvignon is a medium for transforming nature’s bounty by human hand and expertise (like Tchelistcheff’s) into what may well be mankind’s highest agricultural achievement. And perhaps great Pinot Noir is God’s way of occasionally demonstrating how far we have to go, gracing us with elusive heavenliness that leaves us forever captivated and doomed to a mostly fruitless quest to repeat the experience.
But I get what Tchelistcheff meant. Although he could harness his experience and knowledge to reliably make great Cabernet in vintage after vintage, he found Pinot Noir mostly unresponsive to reason, more a product of mysterious happenstance and even alchemy than established science. Indeed, one can even understand Tchelistcheff’s implication that he was “bedeviled” by this most temperamental of wine grapes. Because for all of his success with Cabernet Sauvignon, Tchelistcheff always said that he produced but two truly legendary wines– the 1946 and 1947 Pinot Noirs for BEAULIEU VINEYARD (“BV.”) Who knows? Maybe God figured it would take not one but TWO magical vintages to hook the wily Russian. If so, it worked, for Tchelistcheff spent the rest of his winemaking career trying in vain to equal those twin peaks of excellence. At least he could take solace in the consistent excellence of his BV Cabernets.
Cabernet Sauvignons like Tchelistcheff’s BV GEORGES LATOUR PRIVATE RESERVE please us from the neck up, as do great art and music, while Pinot Noir arouses our inner animal passions, in a manner like musk oil or truffles. If these two wines were women, then Cabernet Sauvignon would be many a country gentleman’s idea of the perfect wife— a blond, blue-blooded Ivy League equestrienne, regal of breed and icily refined in manner and bearing… always correct, if unexciting. Pinot Noir, in contrast, would be his raven-haired, fiery-eyed gypsy mistress, galloping bareback on a stolen horse to their next steamy tryst.
But I tend to think of white wines as women and red wines as men. And so if these two wines were males, I imagine them as a pair of musically-gifted brothers--
One brother effortlessly thrives at the conservatory and goes on to earn a seat in a prestigious orchestra. He is consistently brilliant with his violin in a wide variety of styles, and conductors worldwide find him easy to work with. This brother is Cabernet Sauvignon. The other brother drives several of the conservatory faculty to quit in exasperation at his unfulfilled talent until he himself is finally expelled. Having pawned his violin for meal money, he roams from city to city playing tenor sax in seedy clubs, never more than two paychecks ahead of abject poverty. But he is supported by a rabidly loyal following who tolerate his all-too-frequent no-shows and off-nights because they know that perhaps one night in seven— when the stars or whatever else magically align— he will shuffle to the stage, close his eyes, rear back, and then proceed to channel the very voice of God. This brother is Pinot Noir.
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After all this long trip up the hierarchy and such a lengthy introduction, we should at least share some tasting notes, right?
What makes wine interesting as well as delicious is the drama that plays out with each sip– the conflict and its resolution; the creative tension between opposite flavors and textures. Cabernet Sauvignon is a thick-skinned late-ripener that requires a long and fairly dry summer to fully and properly ripen. When it does, the complex interplay of flavors can be spectacular– deep, dark flavors of sweet purple and black fruit (such as cassis) are counterbalanced by pleasantly acrid notes of bell pepper. The effect is quite similar to that of the grill marks on your steak– you wouldn’t want to thoroughly incinerate the whole slab of meat, but a modicum of char beautifully accents the succulence of the medium-rare interior. Maybe that’s why big Cab and grilled steak seem so perfect together.
But wait– there’s more! Those thick skins on the Cabernet grapes are loaded with tannin, an excess of which can make drinking such wine in its youth feel like biting into a wool sweater. In moderation and/or with some cellar age, a judicious measure of tannin conspires with the oakiness from the barrels to give Cabernet Sauvignon a seemingly three-dimensional solid structure in one’s mouth, a framework in which all that luscious, purple fruitiness can fully express itself. When done right, the result is astonishingly delicious… more so, I dare say, than any other red grape variety similarly grown and vinified.
In recent decades there has been an effort among winemakers to make Cabernet’s sturdy profile softer and its massive fruitiness more accessible in its youth. They usually do this by withdrawing the juice from the skins before fermentation is complete, thereby avoiding further extraction of tannin. I personally prefer old-school Cabernet. If I want a big red that’s fully approachable before its third birthday, there are plenty of good Merlots and old-vine Zinfandels out there. They don’t call Cabernet the “King of Grapes” for nothing… so when I head down to my wine cellar for a perfect red to accompany my fancy steak after a week on the road, I don’t want some metrosexual, over-refined Cab trying to hide its muscles and manhood as if ashamed of them; rather, gimme a Cab that tastes like it was grown in a junkyard, trellised on barbed wire, and picked by felons on work release. I know that half a day’s exposure to air in my decanter will at least partially civilize it before dinnertime without compromising its God-given strength. In my experience, Cab that has softened up is better than a Cab that was never tough in the first place.
And if all that sounds like a difficult act to follow, then perhaps you just haven’t met the right Pinot Noir.
The 20th century struggles of Californian winemakers to consistently make Pinot Noir that was as good as their Cabernets eventually taught everyone in the Golden State an important lesson– that more isn’t always more. While Cabernet Sauvignon had long thrived in the Californian “more-is-more” warmth and sunshine, Pinot Noir did not. Perhaps because in France’s Burgundy region (Pinot Noir’s native heath) summer sunshine and dry warmth are so highly desirable, it didn’t occur to Californian winemakers that, for Pinot Noir anyway, there might be an upper limit to such blessings. And whereas Cabernet’s dark fruitiness benefits from all it can get, Pinot Noir, they eventually realized, might do better in a different microclimate. They didn’t need to travel far, just to the nearby coast. Pinot was found to thrive in the cool coastal draws where the sea fog filters the sun and moderates the temperature, slowly nudging Pinot’s more delicate red fruit flavors to perfection.
And once they found out how to make consistently good Pinot, it wasn’t long before they started making GREAT Pinot Noir on purpose instead of by accident.
The sensory theater in a sip of great Pinot Noir, while not as loud and powerful as that of Cabernet Sauvignon, is no less dramatic. Red fruits– mainly raspberry and cherry, in my experience– tend to dominate Pinot’s perfume, counterbalanced by what is often described as notes of soil, coffee, and/or cola. (Sometimes I find myself in a coffee shop when they are brewing freshly-ground French Roast, and I get a shiver of olfactory nirvana when my brain recognizes it not as coffee but rather as a component of fabulous Pinot Noir.) And whereas Cabernet’s structure is sturdily framed with oak and tannin, Pinot Noir tends to feature the unctuous, silky-rich texture of glycerin, leaving the rip-roaring red fruit flavors and shimmering acidity room for full expression in the absence of significant tannin.
Pinot Noir hasn’t traveled as widely beyond its Burgundian base as has Cabernet Sauvignon beyond Bordeaux, but it performs well enough in enough different regions to easily qualify as “noble.” In California we find lushly fruity versions from the regions Santa Barbara, Monterey, Sonoma Coast, Carneros, the Russian River Valley, and the Anderson Valley. California’s northern neighbor Oregon is a whole Pinot Noir success story in itself– Willamette Valley pioneer David Lett scored a significant upset in 1979 over prestigious Burgundian competition with his Eyrie Vineyard 1975 South Block Reserve Pinot Noir, and Lett’s success in Oregon likely helped to motivate his California counterparts to seek cooler sites for their Pinot. Elsewhere in the world, Australian versions of Pinot Noir are predictably ripe and muscular without fundamentally deviating from the classic Pinot template, while New Zealand has shown promise with relatively light and zingy interpretations that echo their refreshing take on Sauvignon Blanc.
And finally, a bit of serving advice– just as Cabernet Sauvignon’s massive structure benefits from a few hours of breathing prior to service, Pinot Noir’s prominent acidity coupled with its comparative lack of tannin makes it a great candidate for the chill-bucket. (NOT the ice bucket, unless it is Pinot Noir BUBBLY.) Half an hour before serving, simply give your bottle a bath in a stock pot full of cold tap water. I guarantee that your Pinot Noir will taste twice as good if you serve it ten degrees cooler than room temperature. (This is good advice for most reds, but big reds with downright chewy tannin benefit less from a cold dunk.)
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So, let’s say you’re relatively unfamiliar with these two varieties, or maybe you are sufficiently inspired by my descriptions to try one or the other or both. Here are a couple of good entry-level recommendations in the $15-20 range–
After extolling at length the virtues of California, I’m going to pull a switcheroo and recommend heading north to Washington State, which enjoys two advantages over California– One, land is cheaper in Washington, meaning that wine can be made more inexpensively; and Two, Washington’s vineyards are well north of California’s, meaning that its summer days are a couple of hours longer. Combined with a cooler climate, this means that Washington’s grapes enjoy a longer, more leisurely path to full ripeness, developing plenty of complex flavors for twenty bucks. While the best of California’s Napa Valley Cabernets are without parallel in both quality and price, Washington Cabernets are often better values in the more user-friendly price ranges. Look for CHATEAU STE. MICHELLE “INDIAN WELLS” CABERNET SAUVIGNON at your local wine shop or order it online.
Until recently it has been rather difficult to find Pinot Noir for less than $20 that was both varietally correct and consistent from one vintage to the next. But a powerful major producer changed the game just a few years ago.
It has become fashionable among wine mavens to bash MEIOMI PINOT NOIR simply because it is, well, mass-produced. I don’t criticize MEIOMI for that… not when their result is so excellent. I think that, given Pinot Noir’s troubled history and checkered track record, MEIOMI is a welcome accomplishment– a large production Pinot Noir that is well worth its tariff, available always and everywhere… even if only as a gateway to better and way more expensive bottlings. I can only conjure one little criticism– In mass-producing a wine that requires year-to-year consistency from such a finicky grape, MEIOMI PINOT NOIR is by necessity tightly managed (i.e., “manipulated”) in the cellar, making it a little like the surgically remastered face of a veteran supermodel— flawlessly beautiful from afar and yet, upon close examination, lacking an element or two of fleshly liveliness and spontaneity that we normally associate with youthful pulchritude. But if you find it in your heart to forgive a little œnological scalpelry and Botox, MEIOMI is a darn delicious Pinot Noir for eighteen bucks.
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(As I was reading up for this essay, I got sidetracked by a fascinating story that really had no place in the paragraphs above but that I consider worth sharing. –DannyM.)
APPENDIX– THE 19TH-CENTURY NEAR-DEATH OF FINE WINE AS WE KNOW IT
European wine grapes (red AND white) are all of the same species, Vitis vinifera (just vinifera for short.) When the early European explorers reached the Americas, they found wild non-vinifera grapes growing everywhere that superficially resembled their Old-World cousins but differed in significant ways– one of them so disastrous that it nearly deprived future generations of fine wine as we know it.
The colonists found that the grape species native to the Americas— including Vitis rotundifolia, Vitis riparia, and, most notably, Vitis labrusca— could be coaxed, with equal parts ingenuity and imagination, into yielding drinkable wine. Good thing, because the vinifera grape vines they brought with them withered and died in their new soil for no apparent reason. No one, not even our brilliant and wine-loving third president Thomas Jefferson— could figure out why. Then in the 1860’s a southern French vigneron introduced American vines to Europe, and the world soon had the answer.
Through a quirk of evolution, the New World grape species were resistant to the phylloxera vine louse, which they harmlessly hosted. However, Vitis vinifera was not… And so, upon landing in Europe, the American vines inadvertently introduced a ravenous pest that promptly killed all the major vineyards of France and elsewhere. But nature rarely presents problems that humans can’t solve, especially when big money is at stake. And so after a few years of frantic experimentation, most European vineyards were re-planted with vinifera vines grafted to phylloxera-resistant American roots. Of all the owners of all the vineyards of Europe thus saved, the happiest were likely those in Bordeaux and Burgundy– the thrones of power of, respectively, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir…
…And without this clever solution to such a devastating biological calamity, this whole article might well have been about beer rather than wine.