Malbec vs Merlot: Which Of These Powerful Reds Is The Perfect Match For You?

malbec food pair - featured image

Last Updated on January 18, 2021

To make your dinner more than just supper and a bit finer, it is important to tune your wine selection.

And it’s not a one-fit-for-all situation. 

Two common contenders for red wine are Malbec and Merlot, which are very similar yet distinct.

The aim of this Merlot vs Malbec comparison article is not to declare a winner, since both of them are the best they can be, but rather to establish which one would be better suited for a particular situation.

Before we dive any deeper, let me state that you don’t have to be a wine aficionado to have a better sense of taste, it is an instinct. If it feels right, then it usually is. But it still pays to know what the social convention is, especially if you’re hosting a dinner.

Let’s get started!

Main Differences Between Merlot vs Malbec

The main difference between Malbec and Merlot that will help you make an informed decision when confounded by the choice:

  • Merlot only has a minor percentage of sugar, around 0.5%, making it a ‘bone-dry wine’ in technical terms, whereas Malbec is comparatively less dry (although both are dry wines).
  • Flavor-wise, Merlot offers a touch of plum and cherry with a hint of bay leaf in the mixture, whereas, Malbec finishes off a smoky (tobacco) effect, while the basic flavor comes from red plum and blackberry.
  • While neither of them is expensive, Merlot is comparatively costlier, averaging about 15 dollars more than Malbec, whereas Malbec is more economic.
  • Although neither of these has a lingering taste, Malbec offers a smoky finish, whereas Merlot does not.
  • Malbec is primarily produced in Argentina and France, whereas Merlot primarily originates from France, but is also produced in Spain and Italy.

Merlot

To start, let’s explore the pricier of the two options: Merlot hails primarily from France and is a reputable red wine commonly served in dinners and parties.

Though not especially expensive, it may still be a bit too much for regular home use for some (considering the economic situation).

Grapes For Merlot

The grapes used in making this wine are grown specifically in vineyards from Bordeaux. Just to clarify, you can’t just grow perfect grapes wherever you want, there should be some specific conditions that shape their taste and aroma.

In the case of Merlot, the grapes don’t require so much sunlight and instead fare better in the Gallic country’s climate, preferring primarily dry weather for optimal growth.

These conditions are very hard to replicate (artificially), so much so that winemakers in California tried but failed to make the Merlot locally.

It is for this reason that Merlot hails from only a fraction of the world’s wine-producing areas. People living in dry and cool areas may have a greater chance of success trying to replicate the wine, and in some cases, they have, most notably in Spain and Italy.

How Does It Taste Like?

Being sweeter than some other options available in the red wine section (though not the sweetest), Merlot is much easier to consume, and hence a perfect option for beginners as well. Merlot will offer the perfect blend of taste and punch to stimulate your nerves and taste buds.

The wine has a soft touch to it despite being inherently rich, and this is because of the fruit-skins of specially grown Merlot grapes (grown without exposure to sunlight).

You can double up the fun by mixing it up with other species, for instance, the cabernet, and create something unique and powerful.

Malbec

This entry is produced in both France and Argentina and hails from the same area as the Merlot, Bordeaux – which suggests why the two are so similar, although distinct. However, this variant is more suited for formal occasions and differs from Merlot in terms of taste and finish.

Where Is It Made?

Although primarily a French wine, the Malbec became associated with Argentina later on in history as the country became a competing producer. This was because Argentina happens to have a similar climate to that of France, making it perfect for making this wine.

Today, the Malbec is more closely associated with Argentina than its native land: France.

And although it started as an ingredient for blends, now, Malbec is valued on its own as a separate wine and has developed quite a following.

How Does It Taste Like?

Velvety’ is the word that most tasters use to define Malbec. If you’re unsure what it means, let me clarify: Malbec has adequate tannins and boasts an elegant, rather luxurious end-taste. The finish is smoky due to its tobacco contents, and it lingers for a brief period after you’ve had a sip.

When compared taste-wise, its competitor, the Merlot is sweeter. Malbec is dry, although not as much as the Merlot, and it boasts a mildly acidic touch to it, but the fraction of sweetness it does possess, is because of its fruity contents (the cherries and red plums).

Comparing Malbec vs Merlot

a bottle of merlot

The Malbec and Merlot differ in several respects and under the following headers, I intend to lay down the facts for you and help you make an informed decision:

Degree Of Dryness

While both of these are considered dry wines, the Merlot is termed as ‘bone-dry,’ making it the drier of the two. Dry refers to the residual sugar content which is low for both of them making them perfect to go along with food but not as a sweet delight afterward.

Both wines boast a sweet touch to them, with the Merlot being sweeter, although other flavors also kick in soon enough, most prominently those of the cherries and plums.

Body Of Wine

A wine’s body is reflected by the feeling of heaviness created in the mouth. If the body is full, it will seem very rich while the inverse will be true otherwise.

Malbec, being a full-bodied wine, delivers a much richer and stronger punch, whereas Merlot does not show this strength because it is a medium-full wine, making it less “richer” – it instead offers a delicate balance between softness and richness.

Tannins

I briefly mentioned tannins when discussing Merlot, and I will discuss them in detail here. Fruit skins (and sometimes the bark) have certain intrinsic chemical compounds of organic nature, these contain several phenol rings and are hence called polyphenols.

These polyphenols are called tannins in common language, and they affect the tartness of the wine. There is no ideal level of tannins because different people have different preferences for how their wine should taste.

The more the tannins, the more the tartness. For Merlot, the percentage is quite high while Malbec offers an intermediate level of tannins in its mix.

Cost Difference

Okay, let me make this clear: a difference is a difference, big or small, I’ll cover them all.

Moving on to the cost, while both are modestly priced but a difference is still there. It is by no more than around 15 dollars (on average), but Merlot comes at a higher price than Malbec.

The former averages around 40 dollars (although advanced and vintage variants will cost more) while the latter has an average price of 25 dollars.

This is not to say that you can’t find cheaper versions of Merlot or pricier variants of Malbec, but my point is that generally, Merlot is costlier.

To some, this cost difference may reflect the quality standard variance between Malbec and Merlot, but it shouldn’t, because they are two different wines.

Flavor Comparison

It is hard to define the flavors of either Merlot or Malbec, not for the want of proper adjectives, but because of the sheer variety that winemakers have introduced in the market. A wine’s taste is also directly affected by how and where its ingredients were grown.

But generally speaking, both have a hint of sweetness with touches of cocoa, cherries (and berries), plums, and vanilla in the mixture.

bottle of malbec - up close

Comparing The Food Partners For Malbec And Merlot

Since each wine has a distinct flavor, body, and finish, your choice will mostly depend on the type of dinner you’re planning on having:

Malbec

Mostly lean meat-based foods like chicken steak tend to go very nicely with Malbec. The same can be said about foods containing cheeses, and this is because of the moderate level of tannins and a brief finish that this wine presents.

All sorts of meaty diets like lamb chops or roasted chicken will perfectly partner with this wine. Moreover, grilled steaks and other smoked foods will perfectly accentuate the smoky finish of Malbec.

In general, Malbec is usually a preferred choice for formal events.

Merlot

Owing to its versatility and the various configurations it is available in, Merlot can pair up with any number of food types.

Heck, you can even have one with your regular slice of pizza!

You can serve it at a family dinner especially if you fancy Italian dishes (it goes perfectly with them). However, heavier variants will pair up perfectly with protein-rich dishes like meatloaf, salmon, meatballs, and so on.

The point is that since Merlot is available in so many variants, you can easily pick one that suits your dinner plan the best.

Verdict

A smoky finish and an elegant touch make Malbec a worthy choice for formal gatherings, especially if the menu is based on lean meat-based dishes.

However, the Merlot is more versatile and you can pick a variant perfect for virtually all dinner scenarios, even for the weekend pizzas, especially if it is from an Italian restaurant!

FAQ Section

Got some unanswered questions swimming around in your head? No problem, let’s take a look at ‘em here:

Which Is Better, Malbec Or Merlot?

Strictly from an objective point of view, it is very hard to say. If someone gives their verdict in favor of one or the other, some degree of personal preference might be involved because reaching a resolute decision, in this case, is as difficult as it gets.

Both wines are honed by enthusiasts and serve different purposes, so it’s not like they’re competing for the top spot.

While Malbec is usually preferred for formal events, Merlot is more versatile and can go perfectly in several scenarios such as a regular dinner at home.

How Popular Are Malbec And Merlot?

When it comes to red wines, you are bound to come across the names ‘Merlot’ and ‘Malbec,’ this alone is enough to suggest that they are very popular.

And this is for a good reason too: they pair perfectly with several dishes and can lighten up anyone’s dinner table with their distinct taste and in the case of Malbec, a smoky finish too.

What Do Malbec And Merlot Have In Common?

Merlot and Malbec are more similar than they are different.

Though Malbec is more or less associated with Argentina in current times, it originates from the birthplace of Merlot: France. They are both red wines, dry (although Merlot is drier), and are either full-bodied or medium-full.

They are not the same, but very similar.

Bottom Line

The differences between Malbec and Merlot can help segregate the two for different purposes, but cannot be used to determine which one is superior or inferior. Merlot is generally pricier, but both are excellent choices and will not fail to appease your tastebuds.

Merlot is more delicate and has a luxurious finish to it, moreover, its versatility makes it perfect for multiple dishes. It will also be a perfect starter for you if you’re not all that into dry wine.

At the same time, Malbec is also just as good, in a different way, most prominently the smoky finish it delivers.

That’s all from my side, let’s hear what you have to say!

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