While each is robust and bold, these two red wines boast distinctive, complex flavor profiles. Discover the main — and delicious — differences between Zinfandel vs Cabernet.
If you were to compare Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel to celebrities, Cab would be the popular A-lister. While Zin would be the often-overlooked character actor who manages to steal the show.
And while many types of red wines share the stage when it comes to palate, aroma, and more, these two are worlds apart. That’s what makes comparing them, and trying them, so enjoyable.
What is Zinfandel?
The Zinfandel grape is believed to have its roots in Croatia, where it’s called Crljenak Kaštelanski. And while the same grape is also grown in the Puglia region of southern Italy (where it’s known as Primitivo), it’s the United States that is home to some of the most well-known and prolific Zinfandel producers.
The best Zinfandels are now made in various regions throughout northern California and along its central coast, including Paso Robles, Sonoma, Contra Costa, and Lodi. They’re known for their jammy, spicy notes and ripe fruit flavors. Old vine Zinfandel wines are among the most sought-after. They’re made with vines that are at least 50 years old, and they often produce complex, well-balanced wines.
And while most Zins are dark, dry red wines, different Zinfandel styles are available. White Zinfandel wine is light and sweet, and similar in color to rosé. And there are also sweet, late harvest Zins. Though these are less widely produced.
In terms of overall production, about 70,000 acres of Zinfandel are grown worldwide, placing it on the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to vines planted.
What is Cabernet Sauvignon?
Cabernet Sauvignon is a behemoth when it comes to red wine. While Zinfandel grapes are grown in smaller amounts in select wine regions, Cabernet is the opposite. It’s the world’s most widely planted wine grape, boasting nearly 850,000 acres of vines in regions including France, Italy, the U.S. (particularly California and Washington State), Australia, South Africa, and parts of South America.
The grape’s origins are in the Bordeaux region of France. It dates back to the 17th century and it began as a cross-pollinated hybrid of Cabernet Franc (a red grape) and Sauvignon Blanc (a white one).
The thick-skinned grape produces a deep red, robust wine with luscious notes of dark fruit and herbs. Referred to widely simply as “Cab,” these big red wines are produced both as single varietal wines and as blends.
In Bordeaux, they’re often blended with other well-known red wine grapes from that region including Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. And the area’s cooler maritime climate produces Cabs that are generally less hefty.
By contrast, those from California’s sunny, warm Napa Valley, also known for its stellar Cabs, typically have a full body and are more richly fruit flavored.
Popular with wine collectors and everyday wine drinkers alike, Cabernet Sauvignon is both versatile and unique. And since it grows well in a variety of regions, it’s widely accessible to wine lovers in both warm and cooler climates.
Flavor profile: Zinfandel
A common descriptor for red Zinfandel wine is “jammy.” But that doesn’t capture the full spectrum of flavors that Zins can impart. These thin-skinned, dark blue grapes produce rich red to dark purple wines that are robust and complex.
They often exhibit intense flavors of blackberry, plum, raspberry, and cherry, mimicking the wine’s dark color. And strawberry is a common note in Lodi Zinfandels. Aging in oak barrels also brings out balancing notes of vanilla and caramel.
But the star of the show when it comes to Zins is the spice — with bold flavors ranging from black licorice and star anise to black pepper and cinnamon. These make Zinfandels great wines to drink with a variety of foods, especially grilled and barbecued meats.
Red zinfandels are typically medium-bodied wines with moderate levels of acidity and medium to high tannins. They also tend to have a high alcohol content, with bolder ones reaching the 16% ABV range. These are generally produced in warmer regions where the grapes ripen longer and generate more sugar.
By contrast, white Zinfandels are pink in color and lower in tannins, as the skins are removed soon after the grapes are crushed. They often feature fruity strawberry, melon, and citrus flavors, and are a sweeter wine rather than dry.
Flavor profile: Cabernet Sauvignon
Robust and rich, Cabernets are dry, medium to full-bodied red wines that are high in tannin — thanks to the thick grape skins — and typically feature medium levels of acidity.
Common fruit flavors include cherry, currants, raspberry, blackberry, and plum. While more mineral and spice notes like graphite, green peppercorn, and black pepper are also typical of a cab. After oak aging, they can take on hints of vanilla and chocolate as well. And you may pick up aromas of tobacco and leather.
Complex and full of structure, Cabs have a long finish, and they pair excellently with a wide range of foods — particularly steak, lamb, and earthy vegetables.
Alcohol levels in Cabs usually fall in the middle to high category, with many ranging between 14.5% to 15%+ ABV, with those grown in warm climates generally featuring higher levels of alcohol.
Unlike mellow Merlots or more delicate Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon wines are fuller and often grippier on the tongue, due to the higher tannins. That can give Cabs a sort of chewiness or heft not commonly found in those other varieties.
Food pairings: Zinfandel
Thanks to its prominent spiciness, red Zinfandel wines pair well with a host of foods, especially barbecued, roasted, and grilled meats ranging from beef to lamb to poultry. Try Zins with dishes like BBQ Ribs and Herb Crusted Rack of Lamb.
Their complex flavors also complement a variety of hard and soft cheeses, including aged gruyere, cheddar, and smoked gouda, as well as blue cheese and gorgonzola. And don’t forget dessert. A Zin will hold its own alongside sweet treats like cheesecake and rich chocolate dishes.
When serving, consider chilling and decanting Zinfandels for an hour or so before in order to help mellow both the high alcohol levels and robust spiciness.
Food pairings: Cabernet Sauvignon
High-tannin, full-bodied wines like Cabs are a perfect match for rich and fattier cuts of steak like Rib Eye and New York Strip. The fattiness of the red meats helps balance the astringency in the wine, and the pairing enhances the flavors of both the wine and the steak.
Cabs also pair well with roast duck, short ribs, lamb, and earthy vegetables like stuffed mushrooms.
In terms of cheese, a big wine like a Cab goes well with richly-flavored hard cheeses like Stilton and Gruyere. But the skip sweet desserts, as foods like chocolate can exacerbate astringency and bitterness in Cabernets.
Given the complex structures of many Cabs, it’s a good idea to decant them for at least half an hour, and serve at room temperature in a large red wine glass to allow the wine’s aromas to breathe and flourish.
While you can find a good Zinfandel for around $20 a bottle, expect to pay between $35-$50 for higher quality wines. Many Zins are ready to drink when you buy them and most will only age well for about 2-5 years. Though some very high-quality ones can age for much longer without losing primary flavor characteristics.
A good Cabernet Sauvignon can be had at a variety of price points, starting as low as $20-$25 a bottle. Though, high-quality Cabs will often sell for $50 or more. Similarly, some Cabs are suitable to be consumed at the time of purchase, but many can age nicely for 7 to 10 years or more. And aging them will typically help smooth out some harsher tannins.
Zinfandel vs Cabernet Sauvignon summary
- Primary growing regions: United States, Italy, Croatia
- Worldwide growing acres: 71,000
- Body: Medium
- Color: Dark red to dark purple
- Acidity: Medium
- Tannins: Medium to high
- Flavor notes: Plum, blackberry, raspberry, cherry, strawberry, black licorice, star anise, black pepper, cinnamon
- Cost: Tend to be spendy. $20-50+
- Primary growing regions: France, United States, Australia, South Africa, South America
- Worldwide growing acres: 840,000
- Body: Full
- Color: Rich, dark red
- Acidity: Medium
- Tannins: High
- Flavor notes: Black cherry, currants, raspberry, blackberry, plum, green peppercorn, tobacco, leather
- Cost: Tend to be spendy. $30-50+ for a good Cab
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