Malbec vs Merlot: Which Will You Love More?

Malbec and Merlot wine has long been among the two of the most popular red wines consumed around the world, earning respect and acclaim. But when it comes down to an outright comparison, what are the main differences between the wine types?

In this article, we’ll take a look at both Malbec and Merlot wines, see how they compare, and hopefully help you find a new favorite.

One reason why some less regular wine consumers might get malbec mixed up with merlot? They happen to go quite well with each other.

In American wine competitions, the best outcome for anyone wine is to earn respect through a distinguished award, with double gold being among the highest honors a wine can receive–which is exactly what happened for six wines this year, including the 2015 Brian Carter Cellars Takahashi Red Wine, an innovative blend of Malbec and Merlot and a touch of cabernet franc.

In case you’re not sure what double gold is, think of it this way: for a wine to be awarded gold certification, it must receive a majority vote for the highest honor. Wines are generally rated based upon a scale of fifty to one hundred, with one hundred being the highest score possible, through publications like Wine Enthusiast sometimes opt for a more simple five-point scale.

Wine tasting notes, flavors, and various elements of quality are taken into consideration. While there is always a level of disagreement as to if wine is being properly judged, the idea is that wine critics are able to distinguish some of the best wines presented to them for that calendar year.

In order to earn the distinction of double gold, as was the case for the Brian Carter blend of Malbec and Merlot, the panel must all agree to award it gold, with no dissenters. Having a panel of judges all vote to award a wine gold is not common, though it does happen–and shows just how highly prized the Malbec and Merlot blend is held.

How popular are Malbec and merlot?

Both malbec and merlot are considered two of the most popular and widely consumed red wines available. If you are not sure just how popular the wines are, you need only look at the copious number of Malbec and Merlot blends that have received acclaim over the past five years. Malbec and Merlot blends tend to produce fine red wine suitable for a number of occasions.

Malbec and Merlot wines themselves, though are also quite popular–you can see that based upon how much they have spread outside of their original growing regions.

Where is Malbec produced?

Malbec wine actually comes in a few varieties based upon growing region. The most prized malbec wine is either Argentinian or French. France is the original growing region for Malbec, as far as we know. It’s been grown in Bordeaux for quite some time, but its history is a bit more complicated than that.

Malbec, though not considered new in of itself, has been most popular since just a year before the millennial, in part because before then it was mostly used in wine blends. Specifically, malbec was popularly added to a variety of Bordeaux blends. The growing of the grape itself can be traced back to pre-1800 when it was first planted or at least identified in the region.

But due to a series of crop failures and the inherent difficulty intending for the rather particular grape, the real reason malbec ever earned recognition was when it was spread through trade to Argentina. Argentina arguably has a more hospitable climate for growing Malbec.

Today, Malbec can be found growing mostly in Argentina and France, but also a number of other regions, including California.

  • Argentina accounts for the bulk of Malbec wine. The red wine is now considered synonymous with Argentina and Argentinian culture and is highly popular among residents. In fact, the country devotes around one hundred thousand acres to the Malbec grape alone. While grown widely, Malbec is most commonly found along the Andes mountains, from Patagonia to Salta.
  • France is the second most prominent growing region for Malbec, although compared with Argentina’s nearly one hundred thousand acres, the nation accounts for about ten thousand growing acres devoted to Malbec. It is also noteworthy that though Malbec is now sold alone, it is also still popular to use it for wine blends. Cahors and Bordeaux are the main growing regions.
  • California comes in behind France and Argentina, but grows malbec widely, including Napa Valley, Alexandria Valley, Sonoma, Livermore, and countless others.
  • Other regions include Central Valley in Chile, portions of Australia, and small pockets in Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Mexico, and Bolivia.

Where is merlot produced?

The history of merlot also is long, dating back to 19th century France, and as it would happen, also the Bordeaux growing region. It can be connected as far back as the 1780s, around the same time malbec was introduced. Lovingly nicknamed ‘little blackbird,’ perhaps for the grape’s dark outer skin, it also was once most popular as ‘second grape’ meant to be used for red wine blends rather than consumed alone.

While Merlot blends are still popular, merlot has grown in popularity, not unlike the way malbec has. In a similar twist of fate, France suffered a major merlot crop blight, and in fact, Merlot was not grown at all from the late 1950s to 1975 due to a government opposed the ban.

In the meantime, however, Merlot had spread globally, and now it is the most widely grown grape variety in the world.

  • France still grows and produces merlot in the Bordeaux region, both for Bordeaux blends and to be consumed alone. France, however, remains the dominant producer, accounting for two-thirds of merlot worldwide and devoting nearly three hundred thousand acres to merlot.
  • Italy is the second most prominent nation for merlot production and is located mostly in the Friuli region of northern Italy as well as Tuscany, though a sizeable portion of merlot is used in Italian blends.
  • Spain/ Portugal, Europe, US, Canada, South America, South Africa, and Asia all also produce merlot. In the United States, California and Washington State are where merlot is most commonly found.

What else do Malbec and Merlot have in common?

As you can see, Malbec and Merlot both are red wines that originated in much of the same way, in France and then spreading worldwide after a crop failure. It was only with time that both Malbec and Merlot have also come to be prized as a red wine alone rather than a blend.

Both are considered rather dry red wines, with medium to medium-full bodied and pair well with lean meats. But despite their popularity as common red wines, there are some key differences.

What are the main differences between Malbec and merlot?

Despite all that they have in common, there is ample reason for a nuanced comparison between Malbec and Merlot. Here’s what distinguishes the two:

  • Dryness: Both malbec and merlot are considered dry wines, meaning that there are little residual sugars, making neither a dessert, but rather a dinner wine. But just how dry? Malbec is considered dry to moderately dry, while Merlot can be very dry. That means that Malbec has a slightly sweeter taste to it, but both are considered to be dry wines.
  • Body: Body of a wine refers to how heavy the wine feels in your mouth. The fuller the body, the more thick or rich it will seem. Merlot tends to have a medium-full body, while Malbec tends to be full-bodied.
  • Tannins: Tannins refer to polyphenols, compounds of oxygen and hydrogen that are intrinsic to fruit skin and bark. On a less technical note, we care about tannins when it comes to wine because it affects how tart, or the ‘puckering’ effect of wine. Malbec has a medium level of tannins, while merlot has a medium-high level of tannins.
  • Cost: While neither malbec or merlot is inherently expensive, there is a noticeable difference when it comes to the overall cost. Malbec wine has an average price of twenty-four dollars a bottle, while Merlot, though available in many cheap varieties, has an average price of nearly double that, at around forty dollars.
  • Flavor notes: In terms of flavor notes, as you might imagine, there is a good deal of variability depending on both growing region and growing method. Merlot and Malbec both have notes of plum, vanilla, and cocoa.

However, Merlot tends to also have hints of cherry and a more savory bay leaf, while Malbec has hints of blackberry and smoky tobacco. Malbec has been described as smoky, leathery, and complex. Merlot, which is often compared most closely with the flavor profile of Cabernet Sauvignon, tends to be described as a fruiter, less complex wine with lower tannins than other red wines.  Variations based on growing region and condition include:

    • Malbec- Sunny climates that are relatively dry, such as Argentina, tend to result in more ripe and fruitier flavors, enhancing blackberry and plum notes. French wine, specially grown in Cahors, tends to be darker, higher in tannins, and emphasizes notes like tobacco, coffee, and has a more savory flavor.
    • Merlot– Cooler climates produce what is known as a ‘classic’ Merlot. Merlot from France, Italy, and Chile, in particular, tend to have higher levels of tannins and exhibit more earthy flavor notes. Warmer climates, such as California and Australia, are lower in tannins, resulting in a more gentle finish.
  • Finish: Wine finishing is the lingering flavor notes after you’ve had a drink. The longer the finish, the more prominent and lasting those notes will remain. Aging, and oak aging, in particular, tends to result in a longer and more robust finish. Merlot and Malbec tend to have a pleasant but fairly short finish, though malbec’s finish tends to be a bit smokier.
  • Food pairings: Food pairings tell us what is most ideal to serve with certain types and varieties of wine. Pairings are determined by flavor notes, level of tannins, body, and finish.
    • Malbec wine flavor notes and shorter finish tends to complement lean meats and cheeses. The softer tannins make malbec an ideal pairing for flank steak, sirloin, and skirt steak. Chicken, lamb, and pork are also agreeable for a malbec pairing. The smokiness of grilled steak or a pulled pork brings out the deeper smoky elements in Malbec. If you want heartier meat, prime rib is also known to be paired with Malbec.
    • Merlot pairs with many different dishes, in part, because flavor notes and body can vary so widely depending on growing region and aging method. That said, merlot’s mild pleasant flavors and short finish is most suitable for dinner entrees. Italian dishes, such as roasted chicken with parmesan, are a natural fit. For light bodied merlots with subtle flavor notes, more casual fare, like quesadillas and even pizza work well (with mild cheeses). Riper merlots, with bolder flavor notes, work well with heavier dishes such as meatballs, meatloaf, hamburgers, seared salmon, short ribs, and chorizo.
  • Hue: While both are red wines, there is a difference in terms of appearance when comparing malbec vs merlot. Malbec wine tends to be described as an inky red to violet and very intense in color, making it a very elegant drink when poured into a wine glass. The grapes themselves are rather inky and darker, with thick skin.

    • Merlot is much lighter in hue, though has a larger spectrum depending on the region. In general, merlot wine tends to have purple and red undertones and starts at a lighter medium to darker red. It tends to be less deep and inky in hue and give a lighter impression overall, though there are some deep red varieties

Is Malbec or merlot wine right for me?

Overall, both Merlot and Malbec are considered popular and fairly accessible wines. While Merlot is more widely grown and popular worldwide, in Argentina Malbec is more popular. In terms of cost, both are known to have highly affordable options, though Malbec actually has a lower price tag on average. In terms of sheer variety, there are seemingly endless varieties of Merlot, while most think of Malbec in terms of French or Argentina wines, with pockets around the globe.

    • If you’re looking for fruity, pleasant and subtle wine, you may like merlot more. Fruit notes tend to be more accepted, and while Merlot is not as complex as some other red wines, it is among the most versatile, suitable for pairings for everything from casual fare like pizzas and cheese sandwiches to Italian cuisine. With a no-fuss feel to it, Merlot is a great wine to start with if you haven’t really had much red wine or wine in general before. In lighter hues and flavor notes it’s very approachable, but it can also feel sophisticated in darker hues and deeper, riper flavors. The prominence of fruity flavor notes beautifully complements the dryness of the wine.
    • If you want smoky notes and a more velvety finish, try Malbec. Malbec is an elegant red wine, with smoky deeper even licorice notes to complement the plum, vanilla, and cocoa note malbec and Merlot tend to have in common. The dark hue and more prominent flavor notes can make the average malbec feel more complex than most merlot. Malbec is perfect for more formal occasions and works well with a variety of meats and cuisines. If you like Malbec, you may end up feeling more strongly about it than merlot. With Malbec, you also may have fewer regions to choose from, which could make your selection easier. You may pay more on average for malbec vs merlot, but this comparison also depends greatly on the specific bottle of wine you select.

Overall, Malbec and Merlot wine is not a matter of which is superior, but which you prefer. If you have no idea what type of wine sounds better to you, go to a wine tasting. Not what flavors, levels of tannins, and how bodied you like your wine. Always be sure to sip and let the wine’s flavor settle before judging so you can appreciate the full complexity, as well as the natural finish of the wine.

And if you’re looking for wine at its highest quality, we suggest we check how the wine was (if it was) aged, where it was produced, and as much information on the vineyard as you can possibly acquire. If you’re truly torn between Malbec and Merlot, no worries: blends featuring Merlot and Malbec are still widely available and quite popular, winning awards at wine contests but also places at people’s dinner tables around the world.

Do you have any recommendations for the best Malbec and Merlot blends?

Why not experience the best of both Malbec and Merlot? Here are some highly rated blends that are full of flavor and offer a great showcase of what Malbec and Merlot have to offer:

  • Man O’ War-Bordeaux Blend, 2010: This delight blend comes from Waiheke Island in New Zealand from a vineyard dedicated to sustainable practices. The blend, which includes Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Merlot features hand-selected grapes picked at their finest. Grapes are then crushed and fermented in batches and tended to daily. The wine is a deep purple hue and features hints of crushed berries, perfume, clove, and Mediterranean herbs with a touch of clove.
  • Clos La Coutale Cahors, 2016.  This French wine comes from the heart of Cahors and is a blend of eighty percent Malbec and twenty percent Merlot. Touted as a rustic southern wine, it’s deeply ink, with earthy undertones with classic berry notes for every day but signature classic wine. Every grape is handpicked and blended in barrels before being bottled.
  • Dry Creek Valley 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon: Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec for an elegant and full-bodied wine featuring black cherry, black currant, blueberry, black olive and a touch of Herbes de Provence. Cocoa, espresso, nutmeg round out a complex red wine.

What are some options for Malbec wines?

If you aren’t interested in a blend and are just looking Malbec wines, consider the following:

  • Bodega Septima Malbec 2016: A rather unassuming bottle, this Malbec wine from Argentina features richly complex notes of cherry, blueberry, violets that is lifted by vanilla and oak. Other flavor notes include pear, raspberry, and rosemary. The wine is barrel aged for six months and is considered to have a balanced and smooth finish.
  • O. Fournier Alfa Crux Malbec 2010. A Malbec wine with a touch of French oak, smooth tannins, and darker fruits mixed with earthy undertones, it is also reasonably priced at a little under fifty dollars a bottle. From the Uco Valley in Argentina, it was a bold color and nuanced flavor to please most Malbec lovers.

What can you recommend for Merlot wines?

There are also plenty of Merlot wines of high quality, but here are just two to get you started:

  • Duckhorn Nappa Valley Merlot 2016: From Nappa Valley comes to a Merlot inspired by traditional French Merlots but at a reasonable price. Described as having a silky texture and fresh fruity blends, this is a crowd-pleasing bottle. Bing cherries, plum, raspberry, and touches of vanilla, clove, and cedar with just a hint of coffee beans for a well-rounded wine.
  • Monticello Vineyards Merlot Estate Oak Knoll: This accessible Merlot features bright notes of cherries and raspberry with touches of cocoa, vanilla, and mocha. The full-bodied drink also comes from Nappa Valley and is among the more affordable but still well-recieved choices for Merlot. It has a subtle but pleasing finish.

Erin Jamieson

Erin Jamieson brings the latest information to you on wine flavors and types so you can enjoy your next glass to the fullest. In the past, she covered wine selections for weddings and engagement parties. She also previously worked with a private chef company to suggest the perfect wine pairings and believes there is a flavor for every occasion. Erin Jamieson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University of Ohio.

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