Merlot vs Cabernet Sauvignon: Battle of the Reds

Let’s set the record straight right off the bat, for those of you who don’t know. Cabernet Sauvignon is often referred to as Cabernet. So to avoid confusion, we may use both terms interchangeably, but they’re both the same thing.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, however, are not the same. So when it comes to choosing the right sipping wine, dinner wine, or party wine, it might be helpful to know a little bit more about each so you can make a better decision.

The Main Differences Between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon

Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are from the same family and grapes. In fact, they share a parent in the Cabernet Franc. However, they have plenty of differences, too.

  • Merlot tends to be fruity where Cabernet Sauvignon is tart.
  • Merlot is soft while Cabernet Sauvignon has very high tannins.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon presents with more spicy flavors like pepper but Merlot has smooth flavors like coffee and chocolate.
  • While there are affordable varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, there are many higher priced options, and Merlot tends to be easier on the budget overall.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are two of the most popular red wines in the world, but Cabernet Sauvignon has had a reputation for being a sophisticated wine from the beginning while Merlot is often snubbed by wine snobs.

About Merlot

Merlot isn’t as popular as Cabernet Sauvignon, but it’s a delicious wine that should probably get more recognition. It’s affordable, which makes it a great choice when it comes to serving it at dinner parties or sipping it often.

Merlot has deep aromas of coffee and chocolate with top notes of fruit like blackberry and black cherry. It’s succulent and sweet, but smooth and savory. This complex taste makes it an interesting wine with oaky support.

History of Merlot

Merlot was first mentioned in France in the eighteenth century. In 1784, a Bordeaux official claimed that Merlot was one of the finest wines at the time. Given the high profile of this person, Merlot gained in popularity after that and many winemakers started planting grapes they called ‘young blackbird’ or ‘little blackbird.’ Whether the name came from the birds who like to eat the grapes off the vine or the dark color of the skin of the grapes, we don’t know.

Merlot was thought to be a great blending grape but was never a stand-alone varietal in the beginning. Of course, in the Bordeaux region, it was competing with Bordeaux – one of the most highly esteemed wines in the world.

The popularity and plantings grew all the way to the Medoc region until 1956 when disease and other unfortunate events almost ruined all of the Merlot vines in France. After a deep freeze, many Malbec and Merlot vines got destroyed. Vintners attempted to replant the vines, but that resulted in a round of rot that destroyed nearly all of them again.

The 1960s vintage of Merlot was almost completely lost, but French winemakers persevered and tried again, only for the French government to ban all new Merlot plantings in 1970. They thought they could prevent rot from spreading to other plantings by banning the grapes that were so prone to rot year after year.

The ban was lifted in 1975 because of the growing popularity of the wine worldwide and the demand for more.  Merlot continued to grow in popularity well into the 1980s, and plantings in the United States boomed. In the 1990s, wine snobs seemed to turn their backs on Merlot based on vine decline, or perhaps on the instability of the plantings, but it’s still one of the best selling wines in the world.

Unfortunately, Merlot grapes are only a few decades old instead of a few centuries. The history is short, but there’s plenty of room for growth, and discoveries about the Merlot grape are still being found. For example, researchers in California recently discovered that Merlot is a descendant of Cabernet Franc.

Merlot Flavor Profiles

Your Merlot will taste different depending on where it’s grown and how it’s made, which is typical of most wines. Cool climate Merlot from places like Chile, France, and Italy produce higher tannins and earthier flavors like tar and tobacco.

Warm climate Merlot from places like Argentina, Australia, and California is fruit-forward with fewer tannins. They’re often aged for up to 24 months in oak barrels to give the wine more structure.

Common flavors found in Merlot are fruits like raspberry, blackberry, black cherry, or plum; earthy flavors like cedar, graphite, tobacco, clove, vanilla, and mocha; and at least a little bit of oak.

Pairing Merlot With Food

Merlot is the chameleon of wines. It pairs well with a variety of foods, which makes it popular because it’s an easy choice. Perhaps that’s why it’s been snubbed by people who prefer to put a little bit more work into their wine and food pairings.

Merlot’s oaky foundation pairs well with savory foods like steak and potatoes, but it’s sweet, fruity notes make it a great wine to drink with dessert. Thick French vanilla ice cream topped with Merlot is a rich treat. It also makes a great companion to comfort foods like macaroni and cheese or to your favorite spicy dish.

Merlot Recommendations

Merlot is affordable, so it’s only fitting that we recommend some quality Merlot wines for you to try. Without further ado, here are some great Merlot wines under $20.

2014 Clos du Bois North Coast Merlot

If you are looking for a wine with passion, ignite your own love story by trying this Merlot. This variety is balanced and approachable. It is made by long-time vintners of 40 years and is a tribute to Old World right here at home.

2013 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Columbia Valley Merlot

Spicy oak makes this Merlot exciting and luscious. It might cost less than $20, but you may wrack up quite the bill when you can’t stop drinking it. The wine has an enticing Rubenesque fruit that’s toned down a bit by the other earthy flavors.

2014 Raymond R Collection California Merlot

Merlot is known to be soft, but this one has a bit more structure and focuses than other bottles of the same price. It comes from one of California’s best vineyards and is a medium-bodied Merlot wine with a refreshing, minty flavor.

About Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is a full-bodied wine with fruit and pepper flavors. It’s dark in color with strong tannins and acidity that lingers. It’s complex and highly esteemed in many wine groups as one of the best wines in the world.

It is certainly one of the most famous, and one of the most widely planted. It’s common as a single varietal but is also sometimes used in blends. It’s a mix of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc varieties but is considered its own variety, not a blend.

History of Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon shares much of the same history as Merlot. Because they’re siblings, they share the same origins in Cabernet Franc. The first recorded mention of each was in the eighteenth century, but Cabernet Sauvignon grew in popularity much earlier than Merlot. It was known earlier as a premier, sophisticated wine that anyone who was anyone wanted to drink.

The name Sauvignon comes from the French word sauvage, which means wild. It refers to the wild Vitis vinifera that is native to France. For a long time, people were unclear about where Cabernet Sauvignon came from or what it was.

For instance, people in the eighteenth century thought that the grape had ancient origins in the Biturica grape that the Romans used to make wine. At this time, the grape was also known as Petite Vidure. Some people called it Bidure, which appears to be a mashup of the names Biturica and Vidure. Still, others believed that the grape came from Spain.

It wasn’t until 1996 when DNA typing discovered the true roots of Cabernet Sauvignon. A team at UC Davis discovered that Cabernet Sauvignon was the result of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, across that happened by chance in the seventeenth century, before the wine’s rise to popularity.

Cabernet Sauvignon Flavor Profiles

Black cherry, blackberry, plum, vanilla, warm spice, tobacco, black pepper, and leather are the most common flavors found in Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s high in tannins and has a medium to full body. It’s usually dry and can be acidic.

These dark fruits lend themselves to a tart taste rather than sweet and fruity, but there are still some varieties that are a delightful mix of both. You can find Cabernet Sauvignon wines that suit any taste.

Pairing Cabernet Sauvignon With Food

The tight tannins in Cabernet Sauvignon pair well with foods that are high in fat and protein. Red meat is the best choice, but fish is also great. Prime rib, burgers, brats, sausage, and lamb are fantastic options to pair with a deep, dark Cabernet.

You may even enjoy your glass of Cabernet Sauvignon with a light snack like a few cubes of strong cheese. Try cheddar, Gruyere, or Stilton. Cabernet Sauvignon can stand up for itself against these sharp flavors.

Cabernet Sauvignon Recommendations

Cabernet Sauvignon can be a bit more pricey, so you’ll be happy to know that while that’s generally the case, there are still some great varieties you can afford on a regular basis.

2003 4 Bears Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

This wine is approachable at an affordable price because it’s been formulated by expert winemaker Will Bucklin in his new venture as a value-oriented vintner. It’s ripe and fruity, which is unusual for a Cabernet Sauvignon, but it’s refreshing and delicious.

2015 Hawk Crest Cabernet Sauvignon

In 1976, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars won the Paris Tasting with their 1973 Cabernet. The Hawk Crest Cabernet Sauvignon is another product of the same winery and displays their continued skill in perfecting each wine they make.

2015 Ravenswood Vintner’s Blend California Cabernet Sauvignon

This Cabernet Sauvignon is juicy and sweet with lots of black fruits bound by tannins that aren’t overpowering or formidable. It’s the most affordable bottle from Ravenswood, but that’s no indicator of taste here.

Merlot vs. Cabernet Sauvignon

It can be hard to tell the difference between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon if you’re not looking at the label. They have a lot in common and they’re the two most popular red wines in the United States. However, if you’re having a hard time deciding between the two, there are some things to keep in mind.

Merlot has a softer flavor, thanks to its fruit-forward taste, fewer tannins, and lower acidity. Cabernet Sauvignon is rich and robust. It can be slightly harder to drink for those who don’t typically drink red wine or don’t prefer the sharp taste of dry wine. While both wines are technically dry, Merlot is more balanced and easier to drink.

Here’s a quick reference guide for choosing between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon:

Merlot

Cabernet Sauvignon

Sweet

Yes

Sometimes

Fruity

Yes

Sometimes

Acidic

No

Yes

Tannic

No

Yes

Affordable

Yes

Sometimes

Smooth

Yes

No

Savory

No

Yes

Spicy

No

Yes

Food-pairing versatility

High

Low

Sipping without food

Yes

Yes

Body

Light to medium

Medium to full

The Verdict

So while Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are very similar and even come from the same family, the question still stands – which one do you get? If you want something affordable with fruit-driven flavors and a smooth finish, you’re looking for Merlot. However, if you want something with a long, savory finish, pepper flavors and something that drinks well without food, you should get a Cabernet Sauvignon.

Sarah Caldwell

Sarah has been a lover of wine for quite a few years, but she doesn't know everything. That's why she's taking this journey with her readers to explore where wines come from, how they taste, and with what they should be paired. It's all in good fun, and maybe one day she'll be a professional oenophile. Until then, she'll just continue to love the experience.

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