Merlot vs Pinot Noir: Compare and Contrast These Two Lovely Reds

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Have you ever pondered contemplatively over a wine menu over which wine to choose?

You know you would like a red, but you just can’t decide which you would prefer, a Merlot or a Pinot Noir. Perhaps you have wandered the aisles of your local wine shop, reading the item descriptions, but you still cannot decide which wine you should choose.

This article will help take away some of your indecisiveness about whether you should choose a Merlot or a Pinot Noir. You will learn about the history of each wine, the similarities, the differences, and which wine pairs best with which you are pairing it. I will also list the best bottles of each at different price points to help you arrive at a well-informed decision based on your budget.

Both Merlot and Pinot Noir are red wines. While they are at times very similar – certainly more similar than a Merlot and a Lambrusco or a Pinot Noir and a Beaujolais – they also have very different profiles, which we will explore in-depth.

Main Differences Between Merlot vs Pinot Noir

The main differences between Merlot vs Pinot Noir are:

  • Merlot is known for its softness and fruitiness, whereas Pinot Noir is more earthy with smoked notes.
  • Merlot is the most produced wine in France, whereas Pinot Noir is more delicate and needs cooler climates.
  • Merlot is great to pair with meats and earthy sauces, whereas Pinot Noir is best with subtle flavours like cheese or spicy food. 
  • Merlot is a full-bodied grape with low acid level, whereas Pinot Noir is more light-bodied and slightly acid. 

Wines are judged by a number of characteristics, some of which are subjective and some of which are measured by a scale or by scientific methods. We will look at each wine and compare the following characteristics:

Flavor

  • Acidic – High acidic wines would be tart and citrusy; low acidic wines would be creamy and soft.
  • Oaked – Unoaked wines are fresh, fruity, and floral; oaked wines are rich and spicy with hints of vanilla, chocolate, and caramel.
  • Fruity – Fruitiness depends on climate and grape variety (varietal wine) and can be detected on the nose and the palate. A fruity red wine will have a bright red berry aroma and almost a dark cherry or current taste.
  • Tannic – Provides structure (tannin structure) and a highly-tannic wine would be described as heavy and robust.
  • Sweet – Sweetness helps balance the acidity and tannin in wines. An off-dry wine would have a hint of sweetness with juicy acidity.
  • Body – This is the overall weight of the wine in your mouth.  A full-bodied red wine would be rich and weighty.

Nose

Aroma, or nose, can be fruity, earthy, floral, citrusy, vegetal, or any other scent dependent on the grape variety.  The winemaking process and storage conditions can also affect the wine’s aroma.

Color

Red wines will have different hues based on the amount of body in the wine.

  • Light-bodied wines will be lighter and translucent.
  • Medium-bodied wines will have a medium-rich color and will not be quite as translucent.
  • Full-bodied wines are deeply colored, probably due to a higher amount of tannins.
  • Old wines that aged too long tend to be almost brown in color.

Alcohol by Volume

  • Alcohol By Volume, or ABV, lets you know how much of your wine is alcohol (high alcohol content vs low) and how much is other stuff, like water. Most wines will have an ABV of between 12.5% and 14.5%.

Temperature

  • Red wines are typically served between 62 and 68 degrees.

Age

  • Age-ability, or how long you can store a bottle will depend on the quality of the wine.

Flood Pairings

  • Wine profiles and tastes tend to complement and pair well with certain foods.

The History of Merlot Wine

Merlot, translated from French, means The Little Blackbird. It is often the first red wine a new wine drinker will try, and it is the second most popular red grape in America and the most planted grape variety in France. It was first listed as an ingredient in a wine in the 1784 by a French winemaker in the Right Bank of Bordeaux. The grape is known for its ability to add softness and fruitiness to a wine. Based on DNA testing, Merlot was discovered to be a cross between the Cabernet Franc and the rare Magdeleine Noire des Charentes grapes.

Merlot was originally used as a blend with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to make Bordeaux wine. The Merlot grape arrived in America in the mid-1800s, and American winemakers began making wines solely with the Merlot grape. Americans loved the softness and low-tanning levels of the wine.

Merlot wine started in California; however, it is also now quite popular in New York and Washington State. In fact, Merlot is grown on over 600,000 acres around the world.[i]

The Characteristics of Merlot Wine

The Merlot grape is red-skinned and can adapt to a variety of climates. Merlot grapes produce softer, medium- to full-bodied dry red wine. The grapes can have striking differences in flavor depending on the climate where they were grown. Merlot wines grown in a cool climate are more structured with higher tannins and earthier flavors. A warm climate Merlot is more fruit-forward with fewer tannins. As such, fans of low acidity and “sweeter” wines tend to favor Merlots from warmer climates.

Merlot wine has a similar flavor profile to Cabernet Sauvignon, but the Merlot grape has a thinner skin and tends to be less acidic due to softer tannins. It is also usually fruitier with a less complex body. Generally, you will get notes of ripe blue, black, and red fruit which are backed by undertones of vanilla, cocoa, and earthy flavors.

Our Favorite Merlot?
25.99
Crimson red. Intense aromas of dark fruit (black currant, blackberries, & blueberries) layered with notes of cassis with hints of savory herbs, anise, and spice. Intricately and intense flavors of dark cherry and pomegranate.
Buy Now on Wine.com

Merlot Wine and Food Pairings

wine glass

Merlot wine pairs well with a variety of foods. It complements everything from roasted lamb, veal, or filet mignon with rich sauces as well as with foods with hearty sauces that are tomato-based, creamy, or savory with bacon or mushrooms. Merlot also tastes delicious with pizza and barbecued dishes.

You would not want to pair Merlot wine with delicate fish dishes, light salads, and super spicy cuisines.

A Comparison of Merlot vs Pinot Noir

 

Merlot

Pinot Noir

Flavor

 

 

  -Acidic

Medium

Medium-High

  -Oaked

Yes

Yes

  -Fruity

Black Cherry, Raspberry, Plum, Blueberry, Cocoa, Black Pepper

Cranberry, Cherry, Raspberry, Vanilla, Clove, Licorice, Caramel

  –Tannic

Medium-High

Medium-Low

  -Sweet

Dry

Dry

  -Body

Full-bodied

Light-bodied

Aroma

Cherry, Cocoa, Vanilla, Clove, Tobacco, Earthy

Ripe Grape or Black Cherry, Earthy, Spicy

Color

Dark ruby to garnet with a tint of orange on the rim

Pale and translucent purple to soft crimson

ABV

13.5% – 14.5%

13% – 14%

Temperature

60° – 65°

63°

Age-ability

3 – 5 years

2 – 18 years

Pairings

Roast duck, Turkey, Lean meats, Roasted vegetables

Duck, chicken, veal, pork, tuna, and salmon. Also Asian cuisine

The History of Pinot Noir Wine

The Pinot Noir grape is the only red wine grape of Burgundy. It is believed to descend from the obscure Gouais Blanc grape. There are 16 unique types of Pinot Noir grapes today. It is the tenth most widely planted grape with a total of approximately 290,000 acres cultivated all over the world.

Pinot Noir grapes are one of the oldest grapes used for wine which dates back to the first century when the Romans conquered Gaul, which later became France. Pinot Noir wine was the wine of choice for sacraments used by the Catholic Church and by Cistercian monks. The populace thought that if it was good enough for the Church, it was good enough for everyone else.

Pinot Noir is French and literally means Black Pine. The fruit grows in cone-shaped clusters, similar to a pine cone and the grape skins have a natural dark color. The shape of the clusters means that too much, or too little, water can easily cause rot.

In California, Pinot Noir wine typically has a higher ABV due to climate and production methods. This results in a riper, darker, more concentrated wine than you will find with its European wines. Pinot Noir grapes are susceptible to fungus, rot, or disease due to its thin skin. It grows best in a cool, dry climate where the vineyard is well-drained with stony or chalky soils.

Our Favorite Pinot Noir?
$52.99 (12% Off)
This Pinot Noir opens with jammy red fruit and freshly picked strawberries followed by tangy Bing cherry, raspberry and baking spice notes. A balanced, youthfully focused wine that finishes with white pepper spice and hints of tangerine.
Buy Now at Wine.com

The Characteristics of Pinot Noir Wine

DNA evidence shows that Pinot Noir is identical to Pinot Gris/Grigio and Pinot Blanc. The latter two are color mutations of the Pinot Noir grape.

A young Pinot Noir will taste simply of fruits, including cherry, plum, raspberry, and strawberry. The more complex flavors develop as the wine matures and reveal chocolate, earthiness, smoke, and truffles.

Pinot Noir Wine and Food Pairings

Pinot Noir wines have a red berry profile and delicate nature which complements meaty dishes such as duck, chicken, veal, pork, tuna, and salmon. It pairs well with Asian cuisine, especially sushi and Sashimi dishes. Pinot Noir wine is a perfect accompaniment for the Gruyere de Comté cheese which is produced only 50 miles from the Pinot Noir vineyards of Burgundy.

You would want to avoid pairing a light-bodied Pinot Noir wine with pork or beef and choose the more subtle flavor pairing of chicken.

Highest-Rated Merlot and Pinot Noir Wines

Our Favorite Pinot Noir?
$52.99 (12% Off)
This Pinot Noir opens with jammy red fruit and freshly picked strawberries followed by tangy Bing cherry, raspberry and baking spice notes. A balanced, youthfully focused wine that finishes with white pepper spice and hints of tangerine.
Buy Now at Wine.com
 

The following wine choices are based on Wine Searcher[ii] and Wine Enthusiast Magazine[iii] ratings and scores.

The most sought-after Merlot wine is the 2005 Petrus Pomerol from Bordeaux, France. It receives an aggregated critic score of 100 and an average price of $4,975.

The most sought-after Pinot Noir wine is the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Grand Cru, Cote de Nuits from Burgundy, France. It receives an aggregated critic score of 97 with an average price of $20,407.

Our Favorite Merlot?
25.99
Crimson red. Intense aromas of dark fruit (black currant, blackberries, & blueberries) layered with notes of cassis with hints of savory herbs, anise, and spice. Intricately and intense flavors of dark cherry and pomegranate.
Buy Now on Wine.com

Highest-rated under $100

 

Merlot

Pinot Noir

Name

Checkmate 2014 End Game Merlot

Joseph Phelps 2016 Freestone Vineyards Estate Grown Pinot Noir

Origin

Okanagan Valley, British Columbia

Sonoma County, CA

Points

94

96

Average Price

$75

$60

ABV

14.6%

14%

Description

Strikingly rich, deeply fruited, dark and toasty

 

Accents of clove and cardamom filled out by the berry fruit core

 

Highest-rated under $50

 

Merlot

Pinot Noir

Name

Peter Franus 2016 Merlot

Brooks 2016 Toluca Lane Pinot Noir

Origin

Napa Valley, CA

Willamette Valley, OR

Points

90

94

Price

$40

$48

ABV

14,2%

14%

Description

Tart and tangy with black fruit and seasoned in leather, tobacco, and black pepper.

 

A delicious mix of raspberry jam with orange marmalade

 

Highest-rated under $40

 

Merlot

Pinot Noir

Name

Rutherford Hill 2015 Merlot

Lynmar 2018 Rosé of Pinot Noir

Origin

Napa Valley, CA

Sonoma County, CA

Points

90

94

Price

$30

$30

ABV

14.5%

14.1%

Description

Earthy flavors of leather and oak with a rich and decadent core of dark plum

 

Pure strawberry and watermelon flavors with a hint of dried herbs

 

Highest-rated under $30

 

Merlot

Pinot Noir

Name

Raymond 2016 Reserve Selection Merlot

Rodney Strong 2018 Rosé of Pinot Noir

Origin

Napa Valley, CA

Sonoma County, CA

Points

90

92

Price

$24

$25

ABV

14.5%

12.5%

Description

Smooth, rich and rounded, with thick baked plum and cherry flavors

 

Candied orange peel, raspberry, and strawberry

 

Highest-rated under $20

 

Merlot

Pinot Noir

Name

Milbrandt 2017 Merlot

Shallow Seas 2018 Rose

Origin

Columbia Valley, WA

Willamette Valley, OR

Points

91

91

Price

$17

$18

ABV

13.5%

13.1%

Description

Plush red fruit, herb and eucalyptus aromas with scrumptious fruit flavors

 

100% Pinot Noir, this wine pulls in orange, Meyer lemon, and other citrus, as well as strawberry

 

Highest-rated around $15

 

Merlot

Pinot Noir

Name

Townshend 2016 Merlot

Pacific Redwood 2017 Organic Pinot Noir

Origin

Columbia Valley, WA

Mendocino County, CA

Points

82

86

Price

$15

$13

ABV

14%

14%

Description

Barrel spice, sawdust, green pepper and game aromas followed by dried fruit taste.

Leafy aromas and beefy with tart cherry and rhubarb fruit flavors

 

 

FAQ’s About Pinot Noir vs Merlot

What is the smoothest red wine to drink?

Pinot Noir is one of the smoothest red wines to drink, and it’s even great for beginners who are exploring the notes and the overall taste of red wine and its also easy to find everywhere. You can also try the Bordeaux, Grenache, and Sangiovese which contain less tannin and are easy to drink.

How are red wines made?

Unlike white wine, which does not includes the pulp of the grape, the process of red winemaking includes crushing the grapes with the pulp as well, which gives the wine such a fine red color. Next, the wine is fermented and afterward, it’s clarified from tannins, yeast, and proteins and it’s stored in oak barrels

How to distinguish red wine?

There are three types of red wine: Light bodied, Medium-bodied and Full Bodied
– Light-bodied red wine has fewest tannins levels present and is an easy pairing wine.
– Medium-bodied red wine has more tannins levels than the light-bodied red and it has more presence on the plate.
– Full-bodied red wine has the highest tannins levels and it definitely feels tough on the tongue so you will know when you are drinking it.

Pinot Noir vs Merlot: Conclusion

Merlot and Pinot Noir are both red wines that originated in France. As they have both a spread and been cultivated worldwide, their flavor and taste profiles are very different. Pinot Noir grapes are much more difficult to cultivate whereas Merlot grapes tend to be heartier and easier to grow.

Pinot Noir has a lighter color and stronger flavor than Merlot which has a milder taste and a deeper color. Merlot is more versatile for food pairings though Pinot Noir will not clash with the flavors of various dishes.

Pinot Noir tends to be more expensive because the grapes are rarer, however, blended Merlots will cost more.

All in all, it comes down to taste. Choose a few bottles of each and decide which grape varietals you prefer. Nobody knows better than you what pleases you and your taste buds, so enjoy! To your health!

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Tammy Wunsch

Tammy Wunsch loves wine, vineyards, and travel. Her blog, ExpatWriter.com, prominently features these three topics, as well as information about living the digital nomad life. Tammy is the author of "The Navarre Brotherhood," an adventure novel about a search for the Knights Templar treasure. She lives in the Quiet Corner of Connecticut and spends her free time working on a sequel, planning her next trip, and seeking out new wines to share with friends.

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