One of the most popular red wines is also one of the most elusive to find. Not because winemakers are not growing any of it, but because it is one of the most difficult varietals to grow. No less an expert than André Tchelistcheff, the most influential post-prohibition winemaker and referred to by many as the "dean of American winemaking," was famous for saying, "God made Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot Noir." A quick comparison between the two will help point out just what he meant and why Pinot Noir is such a sought after wine.
Both varietals originate from similar regions in France and both have been transplanted to nearly every corner of the winemaking world, California included. Both have the potential to create rich, full bodied multi layered wines, suitable for drinking while still young, as well as cellaring and aging for several years and even decades. Both are best enjoyed when paired with meals, typically heartier dishes, and both are varietals that winemakers will turn to when looking to create a signature wine for their vineyard. Beyond that, the differences are pretty major, even if it only comes down to the thickness of their skin.
It is easy to look at a grape and believe that the skin has got to be the same on all of them. Surely something that is not bigger in circumference than a nickel cannot vary too much in skin thickness. It may not seem that big when measured, but when it is looked at in relation to the size of the grape itself, a little bit goes a long way. Cabernet grapes have the thicker skin, which allows them to handle greater fluctuations in temperature and moisture. Excellent Cabernet wines are made from grapes grown in hot coastal plains, lush valleys and canyons and arid dry mountains. They certainly benefit from a longer growing season, resulting in rich juicy berries that become complex full bodied wines, but even a weather shortened season can offer up exciting vintages. In short, it is a grape that can be grown almost everywhere with consistent success.
The thinner skin on the Pinot Noir means that the conditions for the perfect grape are exceeding exact. Too much rain, too little sun, too cold or too hot a temperature and the resulting wines will be indistinguishable from a generic table wine. They require continual attention and sharp observation, and most winemakers only attempt to create a masterpiece Pinot Noir after several years of experience.
However, when it is done well and done right, it is one of the most sublime wines available in the world. Unfortunately, the law of supply and demand applies most directly to Pinot Noir, so it tends to be one of the more expensive California wines on average. When you get the right one however, you will suddenly understand what all of the fuss is about.
Jack Terry is a freelance writer who has been covering the food and beverage industry for more than 20 years.