Written by: Tim Edison

Updated on: November 15, 2022

Malbec vs Cabernet Sauvignon: What’s the Difference?

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When it comes to rich, inky red wines, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon are right at the top of every wine lover's list. 

Cabernet Sauvignon's high tannins and acidity give it a grippy texture, while Malbec's moderate tannins and low acidity give it a velvety texture. The black fruit flavor profile is similar, but Cabernet is more elegant. 

Both wines are French and are found in Bordeaux style blends with Cabernet Franc and Merlot. However, while the French love Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec is a declining grape primarily grown in Argentina. 

This guide takes you through the differences and similarities between both wines, exploring origins, tasting notes, history, and more. 


Malbec vs. Cabernet Sauvignon: Tasting Notes Compared

Malbec is a jammy red wine with blackberry, plum, black cherry, and violet flavors. It takes on notes of leather and cocoa with oak aging, but extended aging is not typical because of the wine's tendency to develop a bitter taste. 

The typical Malbec is velvety with a medium finish and a sweet aftertaste, while Cabernet has a chalky, lingering mouthfeel. 

Malbec from the Cahors region of France has a savory quality with a zingy pomegranate undertone. Argentinian varieties are lusher, with fine chocolate and stewed plum notes that evoke a sense of richness. 

Cabernet Sauvignon is drier than Malbec with more tannins, giving it a grippy texture and a long finish. Black and red fruit notes of plum, blackberry, and raspberry are typical, and the wine takes exceptionally well to oak aging. 

Oaked Cabernet takes on leather, tobacco, and green bell pepper notes, giving it a savory quality missing from Malbec wines. 

Although most Cabernet is from warm climates, you can expect bright red fruit and red licorice notes in cool region wines.


Malbec vs. Cabernet Sauvignon: Aroma

Cabernet Sauvignon has a delightful nose of black fruit, violet, and graphite, with a hint of fresh red fruit, giving it a bright personality. 

Warm spice, green bell pepper, and vanilla aromas are common in Argentina and New Zealand Cabernet Sauvignon. French wines are consistently fruity, with blackcurrant notes underpinned by vanilla. 

Malbec smells different from Cabernet, with black cherry and blueberry aromas. Blueberry gives it a lighter nose, but it is still dense, packed with plum and cherry undertones. The rich nose gives the sense of a chewy wine. 

However, Malbec isn't chewy in the mouth – it is relatively light. Cabernet Sauvignon is the chewier of the two. 


Malbec vs Cabernet Sauvignon: Color

Malbec is deep purple and red, like Syrah/Shiraz. The rim is dark magenta, giving the wine a fresh and vibrant appearance. 

Cabernet Sauvignon looks completely different, with a deep, ruby color. The rim is ruby red, with very little light penetration. 

You get the sense that Cabernet is a richer, fuller wine, and this is backed by the wine's high tannins and fuller texture. 


Malbec vs. Cabernet Sauvignon: Alcohol Content 

You can expect Malbec to have a 13% - 15% ABV, with most varieties teetering towards the bottom. Cabernet Sauvignon is usually 13 - 14.5% ABV, so slightly lower, but there's little to choose between them. 

Both wines are classed as full-bodied due to their similar alcohol content, although Cabernet has a denser texture due to more tannins. 


Malbec vs. Cabernet Sauvignon: Sweetness/Dryness

The thing we love most about Malbec is it doesn't taste dry, despite being a dry wine. The jammy flavors are sweeter than you expect, helping the moderate tannins and low acidity shine without drying out the mouth. 

This gives Malbec a juicy mouthfeel. 

Cabernet Sauvignon is much drier, to the point where it can taste chalky. The high tannins give it a dry, gritty texture, helping the dark fruit flavors stick. It has no residual sugar, while Malbec has around 1.5g of sugar per liter. 

If you love dry reds, Cabernet is the best option. However, Malbec has a lovely fruity sweetness but can still be considered a dry wine.


Malbec vs. Cabernet Sauvignon: Acidity

Cabernet Sauvignon is more acidic than Malbec, although it is less acidic than many other red wines, including Grenache and Pinot Noir. 

The acidity level is best-described as high-medium, depending on where the grape is harvested. Warm climate Cabernet (e.g., California) is less acidic than cold climate Cabernet (e.g., New Zealand) due to sweeter grapes. 

Malbec is a low-medium acidity wine with lots of structure, thanks to smooth tannins and jammy flavors with a spiced quality. 

However, too little acidity dulls the flavor profile. The Malbec grape thrives at higher altitudes like those in Mendoza, Argentina, developing higher acidity. French varieties from high altitudes are labeled 'Terroir d'Altitude.'

 

Malbec vs Cabernet Sauvignon: Tannin

Aside from color, the most significant difference between red and white wine is tannins – bitter, astringent compounds that dry the palate. 

A wine higher in tannins tastes dryer than one low in tannins, irrespective of the body or alcohol content. 

Malbec has moderate tannins that balance juiciness and dryness. Drinking Malbec won't dry your mouth, but it won't make you drool like sweet wine. 

Cabernet Sauvignon is high in tannins with a dry profile and will dry out your mouth. Savory varieties have a chalky quality. We adore this feature of Cabernet because it gives us a long finish to enjoy those black fruit flavors. 

However, there are exceptions. Malbec is more acidic in a late harvest, creating an exciting wine with bittersweet notes. Late harvest Cabernet is sweeter, with red fruit notes and a lighter mouthfeel. 


Malbec vs Cabernet Sauvignon: Body

Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon are full-bodied reds with similar alcohol, but the crown goes to Cabernet in terms of outright density. 

Cabernet has a fuller mouthfeel than Malbec, coating the palate and sticking with a long finish. Malbec is a little lighter than Cabernet, and the sweeter flavors and lower acidity help it move along without lingering. 

Malbec is fuller than Grenache and Sangiovese but lighter than Cabernet and Syrah. Cabernet sits towards the top of the pile for fullness, with aged varieties having a very dense texture. 

Both wines also come in blends. Malbec is blended with Merlot and Petit Verdot in Right Bank Bordeaux, while Argentina has a famous Malbec and Bonarda blend. Blended wines are usually lighter with more savory notes. 


Malbec vs. Cabernet Sauvignon: How They're Served

Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon are best served between 60–68°F (15-20°C). High temperatures destroy the wine's flavors, while cold temperatures bring out the acidity and give both wines a bitter taste. 

You should serve Malbec in a standard wine glass and Cabernet in a large wine glass – a larger glass introduces more air, helping the wine breathe

Decanting is optional but recommended with aged varietals to help the flavors develop, or you can pop the cork and let the bottle sit for ten minutes.  

Other than that, tuck in!


Malbec vs. Cabernet Sauvignon: History

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most exciting wine grapes because it was created entirely by accident. 

Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between the red grape Cabernet Franc and the white grape Sauvignon Blanc, which met on the hills of Bordeaux in the 1600s.

The grape flourished in France over the following centuries, spreading to Médoc and the Loire Valley. In the 1800s, it became a significant export, reaching Italy in the Piedmont region in 1820 and Lombardy in the 1830s.

Today, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted wine grape, with over 340,000 hectares worldwide. 

Moving onto Malbec, we have an equally interesting history. Records show it grew in the Loire Valley of Bordeaux as early as the 16th century, so it is an older grape than Cabernet Sauvignon by some distance. 

However, the French relegated Malbec in the 19th century following a bad frost that destroyed 90% of the vineyards. Malbec almost disappeared from Bordeaux in the 19th century and today is mostly found in Cahors in Southwest France. 

Argentina is the world's largest producer of Malbec today, and most of the finest wines are from Mendoza. Mendoza has high-altitude vineyards in Luján de Cuyo and the Uco Valley, which produce Malbec grapes with excellent acidity.


Malbec vs. Cabernet Sauvignon: Popularity

Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular red wine in the world by sales volume and vineyard hectares – not bad for an accidental grape. 

Cabernet's success is because of its ability to thrive in warm and cool climates, from the California Coast to the French Alps. 

Malbec is less popular on a global scale. It has seen declining growth in France but is Argentina's favorite red wine, accounting for over 37% of Argentinian wine sales, with 65% of all Malbec on the global market imported from Argentina. 


Malbec vs. Cabernet Sauvignon: Grapes 

Malbec is a purple grape variety with a blue, chalky appearance, and it grows in small pyramid clusters with large orbicular leaves. The grapes are medium-sized, although French grapes are more petite than Argentinian grapes. 

Cabernet Sauvignon is a purple-blue grape with larger pyramid clusters. The small, thick-skinned grapes have a chalky appearance on maturity. They are bright green in the early season during veraison, turning purple in late summer.

You can distinguish the grapes from their size and clusters; Malbec grapes are larger and grow in smaller clusters than Cabernet Sauvignon.


Malbec vs. Cabernet Sauvignon: Growing Regions

Mendoza, Argentina, is the leading producer of Malbec wine. The high-altitude regions of Luján de Cuyo and the Uco Valley at the base of the Andes mountains produce many of the finest Malbec wines in the world. 

Another important Argentinian region is Calchaquí Valley in northwestern Argentina, the largest Malbec producer after Mendoza. 

After Argentina, France produces the most Malbec wine in Cahors in Southwest France. It's no longer a dominant Bordeaux grape, with most plantations replaced by Cabernet. 

Walla Walla, Washington, USA, also produces beautiful Malbec, with the short, dry summers providing perfect growing conditions. 

Malbec is also grown in Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Chile's Maipo Valley and Rapel Valley produce a spicier, earthier wine. 

Moving on to Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux is the leading producer, with extensive vineyards in Entre-Deux-Mers, Graves, and Pessac-Léognan. 

The USA produces fine Cabernet Sauvignon outside of France, with vineyards in Napa County, San Luis Obispo County, Sonoma County, and Lodi/San Joaquin County. Californian Cabernet is fruitier than French varieties. 

Aconcagua, Chile, also produces Cabernet Sauvignon, famous for smoky notes thanks to French and American oak aging. The regions of Maipo and Cachapoal also produce lovely Cabernets with leathery notes.  

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most successful red grapes in Australia, with vineyards in Coonawarra and Margaret River.


Malbec vs. Cabernet Sauvignon: Winemaking Process

Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec share the same basic winemaking process. They undergo cold maceration as a pre-fermentation stage to extract color and flavor from the skins, and the juice is fermented in steel, oak, or both. 

Cold soaking lasts around two weeks. The next step is separating the liquid from the seeds and skins, which are pressed once more to extract color and flavor. Care is taken to ensure the seeds are not crushed as these are bitter. 

Stainless steel aging is usually employed for a percentage of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon to retain flavor purity. Oak imparts woody and earthy flavors, so it's possible to change the wine's character with oak. 


Malbec vs. Cabernet Sauvignon: Food Pairings 

The acidity of Cabernet Sauvignon is a fine pairing for prime rib, ribeye, roast beef, roast lamb, and other fatty meat cuts. 

It pairs beautifully with garlic and herbs, bringing out the best in French and Italian cuisine and carb-heavy dishes like pasta. 

Malbec works best with game birds and lean meats like venison and hanger steak. Salty cheeses and savory appetizers also pair well. 


Conclusion

Malbec and Cabernet are both dry, red wines, but they are very different. Here are the key differences and similarities covered in this article: 

  • Both wines are red. 
  • Both wines are dry. 
  • Both wines are full-bodied. 
  • Both wines originate from France. 
  • Both wines are used in Bordeaux blends. 
  • Cabernet Sauvignon is significantly more popular.
  • Although it originates from France, most Malbec is from Argentina, while most Cabernet is from France. 
  • Malbec has low acidity; Cabernet has high acidity. 
  • Cabernet has high tannins; Malbec has moderate tannins. 
  • Malbec is less dry than Cabernet Sauvignon, and the sweet flavors can give the illusion of a semi-sweet wine. 
  • Cabernet has intense plum, blackberry, and raspberry flavors; Malbec is jammy, with blackberry, plum, black cherry, and violet flavors.


Although both wines are delicious, most prefer Cabernet Sauvignon because the dry profile is more befitting of a French red. 

Which wine will you prefer? Try both and see what you think. Cabernet is always a pleasure, but Malbec offers a delicious, sweeter hit. 


About the Author Tim Edison


Tim started Wine Turtle way back in 2015.
These days he contributes to Wine Turtle (and other renowned wine publications) while continuing his wine education.
Tim's wine of the month is the Coates & Seely Reserve Brut NV (from Hampshire, England).

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