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Pinot Noir vs. Cabernet Sauvignon: the smackdown!

September 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Wine

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.

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