Merlot vs Cabernet: Key Differences & Identifying Which Suits Your Taste

a celebration with merlot - featured image

Last Updated: January 12, 2021

When there is a fast-approaching holiday celebration, many people face the confusion of having to browse through seemingly endless choices of bottles from different web pages. 

Well…

It can be frustrating not to know which wine to pick. But what's even more stressful is reading various wine labels, seeing all the flavor notes description, and not understanding a single thing about it.

Like how often do you hear people argue about Cabernet vs. Merlot and what they think is the better option of the two? Which food makes the perfect match for either of them? If you find this all the more confusing, just as I once did, then you should keep reading this article. 

This article aims to give all readers a working knowledge of the difference between Merlot and Cabernet. Learning more about these two well-loved wines will help us make the right choices for our next wine shopping.

Main Differences Between Merlot And Cabernet

The main differences between Merlot and Cabernet are:

  • Merlot has softer tannins giving it a fruity taste, whereas Cabernet has more robust tannins that explain its bitter taste.
  • Merlot wines come in signature ruby red color, whereas Cabernet’s color is lush, deep red burgundy.
  • Merlot is a full-bodied red wine with a lushness that lingers between sips, whereas Cabernet is a medium-light bodied wine that leaves traces of sweet summer fruits on your palate.

What You Need To Know About Merlot

The Origin

Aside from its name’s French origin that means “little blackbird,” Merlot is also a large and thin-skinned red grape from the Bordeaux region of France. This grape is relatively easy to grow, which makes it famous among wine producers. However, it only grows well in a few California places because its vines require certain vineyard conditions.

Some of these conditions include a cool climate, well-drained soils conducive to slow, even growth and ripening. All these are what it takes to have excellent grape production.

Wine producers do not encourage growing Merlot grapes in less optimal conditions because it will only yield wines that lack flavor concentration. It might still be appealing for those who look for something easy to drink, but then it falls short of Merlot’s true potential.

Merlot’s Comeback

It is not unknown to many how the wake of the "Sideways" backlash against Merlot had a severe impact on its popularity, production, and sales in the United States. As a result, it turned many wine producers and consumers away from Merlot for almost a decade. 

The great news is that Merlot is back and seems like it’s here to stay. People nowadays no longer confuse its sweet and straightforward taste for lack of quality, and they start appreciating Merlot once again for its velvety, rich, and oaky flavor.

Merlot’s Global Production And Its Distinct Characteristic Based On Region

The number of regions in which it thrives is one of the many reasons why Merlot is an outstanding grape worldwide. Here are the regions that successfully grow Merlot grapes and the distinct characteristics the wine has for each of them:

  • Bordeaux is home to Merlot grapes. The region has limestone-rich soil that can yield grapes with more robust flavors. Outside this region, they grow Merlot throughout France’s southwest and often blend it with Cabernet Sauvignon.
  • Tuscany is famous for Merlot grapes that are slightly larger and with lesser harsh tannins. They often feature Merlot as a varietal wine or blended with other varieties.
  • Friuli-Venezia Giulia considers Merlot as the most-planted red grape in the region. Their produce has nuances of anise, spice, stone, and more.
  • California has warm-climate regions like  Napa Valley that can produce round and smooth grapes. Their varieties have a lush and fruity profile with vanilla, sweet spice, and new oak hints.
  • Washington wine producers combine the best of the New World and the Old, resulting in Merlot's luscious flavors of cherry with a tinge of fresh acidity and a tannic bite.
  • Chile has top-quality Merlot grapes that are equivalent to the fruity, bold California varieties.
  • In Australia, you can identify Merlot's variants with their powerful fruit overtones and woody flavors. Currently, most of the country's grape growers are still learning the best regions for growing Merlot grapes.

Taste Profile

Merlot's red wine has that distinct flavor related to Cabernets’ but softer and ages more quickly. It is full-bodied and has a milder acidity than some grape varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon. Most wine consumers find it an all-time crowd-pleaser because, in the battle between Merlot vs. Cab, Merlot has lesser tannic, making it easier to consume.

When you grow it in an ideal condition, it has the potential of being a very serious wine. Furthermore, Merlot can also adapt and take on the character of its location and winemaking process. Generally, its taste varies from that of blackberries and herbs to cocoa, black cherries, and plums, with a tinge of vanilla and cedar when aged in oak.

Merlot As A Blending Grape

There was a time when some grape growers dismiss Merlot as a "secondary" grape. They consider it as ideal for blending but not as a stand-alone varietal because of Merlot’s versatility when combined with two or more of the following:

  • Petit Verdot
  • Carmenère 
  • Malbec
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Cabernet Franc

Nutritional Facts: Alcohol Content, Calories, And Carbs

The region where it came from determines a Merlot’s alcohol content. The climate influences its ripeness, and in turn, the ripeness affects its alcohol levels. Those that came from cooler regions have 13.5% ABV (alcohol by volume,) while those from warm climates have 14.5% ABV.

Merlot has lesser or no sugar at all as a typically dry wine, but it does not mean that it is without calories. There are approximately 625 calories in every 750ml bottle of Merlot. If it comes with residual sugar, Merlot will most likely have carbohydrates or carbs but very minimal.

How To Serve Merlot

Most of us know that we should serve red wines at room temperature. However, people’s homes have varying temperatures, from hot summer days to chilly winter. Serving this wine warm will give it a bitter, muddled-like flavor that is overly alcoholic, while too much cold will mute its flavor and aroma.

So for Merlot, the best option is to serve it a bit cooler. Allow it to chill in the refrigerator for about 90 minutes. Once you open the bottle, let it set to give it time to aerate for at least ten more minutes before serving.

If you happen to have Merlot bottle leftovers, simply put back the cork and place it back in the refrigerator. You would still have two to four days before the flavors lose their freshness and start to oxidize.

Best Food Matches

One of Merlot’s benefits of being an easy-to-drink type of wine is that it easily matches various foods. Here are some pairing suggestions you can take note of:

  • Smoked vegetables like roasted bell peppers
  • Cheddar, Brie, Gouda, Gorgonzola, and blue cheese
  • Grilled or roasted beef, pork, or lamb
  • Hearty bean dishes
  • Pasta, burgers, and pizza
  • Roasted chicken, mushrooms, and smoky foods
  • Fresh or roasted fruits
  • Any dark chocolate dessert, especially truffles

Merlot Alternatives

If you like Merlot, you might as well try the following too;

  • Zinfandel
  • Syrah

Best Wine Glass For Merlot

The kind of wine glass that’s best for Merlot is one with a small opening so that the tongue will meet all the wine’s flavors in one steady flow rather than all at once. Drinking the wine this way could soften its spiciness and creamy flavors.

glass of merlot

What You Need To Know About Cabernet

The Origin

Cabernet Sauvignon was once the most widely planted premium red grape until Merlot's popularity in the 1990s. Its origin in France during the seventeenth century was due to accidental breeding between the red Cabernet grape plant and the white Sauvignon Blanc grape plant.

It is a distinctive grape variety that can grow well in various soil and climate conditions. Cabernet Sauvignon grape is preeminent for its thick skin and durable vines that are highly resistant to elements. Its wine is tannic, has a deep blue color, ages, and blends well with other grape varieties.

Cabernet’s Global Production

The Cabernet Sauvignon grows in warmer climates with plenty of sunshine, such as Chile, Romania, Australia, Italy, South Africa, and Argentina.  Winemakers have no trouble cultivating them due to their remarkable resilience, which is why it also grows well in the following:

  • Tuscany
  • California
  • Washington

Taste Profile

If you’re still confused about the Merlot vs. Cabernet Sauvignon taste profiles, it is worth noting that Cab has a healthier tannin level of the two that gives a dry mouthfeel in every sip. 

It has a powerful imprint of black currants, cherries, cedar, and mint. The wine also has prominent notes of leather, dried herbs, and tobacco as it ages, giving way to more subtle flavors. On the other hand, aging it in oak adds a woody, vanilla dimension to the wine.

Best Food Matches

Pairing wine with food doesn’t need to be a complicated process. The perfect food pairing for Cabernet Sauvignon is the following:

  • High protein, fatty food
  • Fillet steak 
  • Red meat (such as a prime rib, steaks, sausages, and even a hearty beef burger) 
  • Strong cheeses like Stilton and Gruyère
  • Traditional Korean-style beef stir-fried in garlic, soy, and sesame
  • Lebanese fried mushrooms with garlic and spices

Blending Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is versatile enough to be a stand-alone wine, and at the same time, it also makes a popular blend for the following grape varieties:

  • Malbec
  • Petit Verdot
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Sangiovese
  • Tempranillo
  • Carménère
  • Shiraz

How To Store And Serve Cabernet Sauvignon

Storing Cabernet Sauvignon at a proper temperature is vital because it is a wine that ages so well. Keeping it at a temperature that's too warm would cause it to lose flavor prematurely. The ideal storing condition, especially for an age-worthy Cab, would be between 50 to 55 degrees, away from warm temperature, light, humidity, and vibration.

Having a steady temperature is best when you are aging a wine. Investing in a suitable wine refrigerator can also help you have more storage options for aging wines. 

Serve your Cab cooler than the average room temperature, at least 55 to 60 degrees, to avoid compromising its flavors. Allow it to sit in the refrigerator for about twenty minutes, remove the cork, and let the air mix with the drink for about an hour before serving. 

Cabernet Sauvignon Alternatives

If you like Cabernet Sauvignon and you think about shaking your wine picks a bit, here are some great alternatives that you could try:

  • Merlot
  • Tempranillo
  • Malbec
  • Tannat
  • Aglianico
  • Mourvèdre
  • Carmenere
  • Nero D’Avola

Nutritional Facts: Alcohol, Calories, And Carb Content

Although wines came from grape juice, yeast fermentation converts the sugar content into alcohol. So if you’re health-conscious or merely trying to manage your weight,  you don’t need to worry because Cabernet Sauvignon is an excellent low-carb wine with only 3.82 grams carbs for every 5-ounce serving and 11% ABV.

Best Wine Glass For Cabernet Sauvignon

The best kind of glass to use for Cab is a large, tall glass with a broad bowl that closes slightly at the glass opening so that it reaches its full flavor potential. This kind of wine glass does wonders in enhancing the wine’s aroma.

FAQs: Notable Facts On Cabernet Sauvignon Vs. Merlot

Which is better, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon?

Both of these wines are great with various foods. They are technically dry, but of the two, Merlot is the one that's easiest to drink, while Cabernet is its more aggressive sibling.

I can't say that one grape is better than the other; it just happens that they have different characteristics. The better option of the two will depend on a wine consumer’s personal preference.

Which is sweeter, Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon?

Merlot has a sweeter taste of the two, although this still depends on the grape production’s location.

Why is Merlot cheaper than Cabernet?

The Cabernet is the pricier one because of its strong demand and its perceived higher stature among wine lovers. Merlot grapes also have a smaller yield than other grape varietals.

Is Merlot or Cabernet healthier?

You can’t go wrong with either of these two wines because, overall, dry reds are the healthiest type of wine. Both have high levels of resveratrol that are good for the heart and lower amounts of sugar than other wines.

Final Thoughts

Cabernet and Merlot are very closely similar to one another, which is why having to choose between the two can be quite overwhelming. We have gone through an in-depth understanding of their origins, taste profiles, etc. so that you will have a quick reference when making your red wine comparisons. 

Just remember, these wines’ differences are also what makes each of them unique. Hopefully, this will make the wine selection easier for you. May you have the best wine shopping experience!

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