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merlot vs cabernet

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are two of the most popular and widely planted grape varieties in the world. These red wine grapes are beloved by fans of Bordeaux, but are also sought after by wine drinkers with a taste for New World wines. Compared to Pinot Noir wine, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot tend to have a fuller body and higher tannins. Tasting notes will often include flavors of black and red fruits. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are some of the best candidates for long-term aging and pair exceptionally well to food. But what are the key differences and similarities between the two types of wine and which one should you choose? Let’s take a look!

Cabernet Sauvignon vs Merlot: A Bit of History

First things first, the origins. Merlot and Cabernet both come from the Bordeaux region of France. DNA evidence has shown Cabernet Sauvignon to be the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. This grape is believed to have been born from an accidentally crossing that took place in the 17th century.

bunches of grapes

Meanwhile, Merlot comes from a crossing between Cabernet Franc and an obscure red variety named Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are therefore essentially half-brothers.

Cabernet Sauvignon vs Merlot: Characteristics of the Grape

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are quite small and have a thick skin, making for deeply colored and tannic red wines. Meanwhile, Merlot grapes are larger in size and have a thinner skin with a dark blue hue. The skins are nevertheless thicker than those of Pinot Noir grapes. Both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vines tend to be naturally low-yielding, resulting in high-quality wines with a higher price.

Cabernet Sauvignon vs Merlot: Growing Conditions

With both Cabernet and Merlot, the growing conditions help determine the finished style of wine. Merlot wine or Cabernet Sauvignon from a cool climate, like Bordeaux, some regions in Italy, South Africa and Chile, will have a more precise structure, more tannins and earthy flavors. Some cool-climate Merlot wines can be mistaken for wines of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Warmer climate Merlot and Cabernet from California, Australia or Argentina, will be more fruit-forward in profile with a plush, soft texture. A bottle of warm climate Cabernet Sauvignon wine can sometimes be mistaken for a Merlot.

Cabernet Sauvignon vs Merlot: Winemaking Considerations

The winemaking techniques used to produce Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot dry wines vary from region to region and from producer to producer. However, some generalizations can be made. Merlot is typically harvested around two weeks earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. This is because while thick-skinned Cabernet needs time under the sun for its dense tannins to ripen, Merlot can become overripe and flabby with too much hang-time. Merlot can quickly lose acidity if harvested too late, leading to an overall lack of structure.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are both great candidates for oak aging. However, Cabernet tends to be aged for a longer period in oak barrels, which impart aromas of toast, cedar and tobacco to the wine. Shorter-aged Merlot tends to be fruitier in style.

Cabernet Sauvignon vs Merlot: Flagship Grapes of Bordeaux

The best known expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the worldwide popular red wines of Bordeaux. Cabernet Sauvignon is the flagship grape of the Left Bank of Bordeaux. It is often blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot to produce a full-bodied red wine with aromas of blackcurrants, tobacco and cedar.

Bordeaux vineyard

Meanwhile, Merlot reigns as king of the Right Bank of the Gironde. It is produced as a varietal wine or is blended with other red grapes to produce a smooth red wine with black cherry and black plum fruit flavors, along with earthy nuances.

Cabernet Sauvignon vs Merlot: Expressions from Around the World

These two grape varieties are widely planted around the world. They tend to be planted in the hottest climates of each wine-producing country. In the Bolgheri area of Tuscany, they are used to produce Super Tuscan wines. In Spain, they are blended with the local Tempranillo grape variety. Cabernet Sauvignon is the star of the Napa Valley wine region in the United States of America.

While appellations like the Willamette Valley of Oregon are best known for Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted red grape of California. Cabernet Sauvignon also produces iconic and very distinctive expressions in Australia's Coonawarra and Margaret River regions, while Bordeaux-style Cabernet-Merlot blends are popular in the Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand.

Cabernet Sauvignon vs Merlot: Wine and Food Pairing

The difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines is reflected in the food and wine pairings that are most popular with each variety. The dense tannins and redcurrant, red cherry, mocha and tobacco flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon will allow this wine to pair nicely with rich and flavorful dishes. Try beef steak, a classic hamburger or grilled sausages. When choosing food pairings, go for bold dishes that will not be overpowered by the wine.

food and wine pairing

The smoother tannins, lighter body and subtler aromas of Merlot will allow this wine to pair with a wider range of dishes than Cabernet. In general, fewer foods will be overpowered by Merlot. Classic Merlot wine food pairings include tomato-based pizza and pasta dishes, roasted chicken or braised meat. Cooler climate Merlot wines with an earthy flavor profile will also go nicely with mushroom-based dishes or even some bolder fish dishes.

Cabernet Sauvignon vs Merlot: Which should you pick for your wine tasting?

So which one of these wines should you choose for your wine tasting? That depends! If you’re looking for a rich, full-bodied red wine with bright red fruit and savory flavors, high tannin, an oaky touch and a long finish, Cabernet Sauvignon is the right choice for you. This wine can be expensive, but they make for fantastic wine gifts. And although it can overpower subtler food pairings, Cabernet Sauvignon will go well with boldly flavored meat dishes and will drink quite nicely well on its own.

If you seek a fruit-forward wine with plush aromas of cherries and plums, with some earthy nuances, less tannin and a smooth finish, Merlot might be right for you. Although some Merlot can lack structure and elegance, these wines tend to pair easily with food. They also tend to be more approachable in their youth than most Cabernet Sauvignon wines.

Any Questions? We would love to answer them!

Still not sure whether to choose a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Merlot (or perhaps a blend of both) for a special occasion? Do not hesitate to contact our team. Our wine experts are ready to provide you with customized recommendations with your style preferences and budget in mind!