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Malbec vs. Merlot: What’s the Difference?

An assortment of different types of wine on a wine rack.
An assortment of different wines. Image by Gustavo Aguilar from Pixabay.

Malbec and Merlot are two of the most popular wines on the market, and they do have some remarkably similar traits- making the question ‘what is the difference between malbec and merlot’ a question that may seem to have a relatively technical answer. However, there are many different nuances and complexities that set both of these wines apart, and once you understand the differences between the two, you’ll never turn back.

Malbec

Malbec is a rich, full-bodied red most famously grown in the Bordeaux region of France. It is currently one of only six types of wine that are permitted in the world-famous red variety of the Bordeaux Blend.

While the grape has its origins in France, it is not necessarily clear from exactly where as rumours and fairytales swamp the history of the plant. The most likely story seems to be that the grape originated from the North side of Burgundy under a different name- although a charming story of the grape being spread through France by a Hungarian Peasant with the name Malbec is a fan favorite.

Over time, the popularity of Malbec has blossomed, and it is now grown all over the world. Perhaps most notably is the very quickly increasing popularity in New World wine regions, particularly in Argentina. This is probably due to the properties of Malbec, and the way that the grape ripens.

Owing to the relatively thin skin of the grape, it needs a great deal more sunshine and warmth to fully ripen than other grapes, such as Merlot. This makes it much more ideal for warmer climates, like Argentina, than it does for the comparatively chill lands of Europe.

Malbec wine is deep in color and in flavor, with a full body and a medium to high tannin level. It is relatively dry, and has medium to low acidity levels. It also has a lovely fruity nature to it, boasting plums and blackberries from a warmer climate, and raspberries and cherries in a cooler climate.

As you are pairing a Malbec, it’s good to remember that while it has tannins and a full body, it also has a relatively short finish, so it actually makes an excellent pairing with lean red meat. Think non-fatty cuts of meat, like sirloin steak, and even more exotic meats like llama. It also goes very well with notoriously difficult to pair cheeses like blue cheese.

Merlot

Merlot is one of the most commonly grown grapes on the planet, second only to Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot forfeited its crown to Cabernet Sauvignon in 2015, but the popularity of the grape continues on, as despite the popularity of Cabernet, Merlot remains the most popular grape in the Bordeaux region of France. Wherever you go, Merlot is still a household favorite and a family name in the world of wine.

Official cultivation of the grape began in the Bordeaux region in South West France. Even to this day, Merlot is popular for both varietal wines and blended wines, the most notable of which is the legendary Bordeaux blend.

As we pass over the French borders, the true levels of popularity for Merlot really begin to shine through. At a time it was the most popular wine in the whole of the United States of America, commonly attributed to the airing of an episode of 60 minutes which spoke about the ‘French Paradox’- the idea that red wine carries health benefits that cancel out the comparatively ‘unhealthy’ lifestyle of the French people.

When Merlot is produced, there are two distinctive ways of doing so. Broadly speaking, you will know which way your Merlot has been produced by looking at where it is from. A New World Wine will use the ‘International Method’ of production. New World wine are countries that have been producing wine for less than 400 years- places such as Argentina, Chile, and the United States.

The International Method of production chooses a later harvest. This later harvest means that the wine has been given time to develop more, and this later development will result in a wine with a darker palate of fruit. This fruit will include berries; with things such as plums, black cherries, blackberries, and so on. The wine will also have much more developed tannins and generally be sweeter as well.

In contrast to this, Old World wine countries, so countries that have been producing wine for over 400 years- places such as Europe, the Middle East, and parts of North Africa, will work with what is called the Bordeaux Style of production.

The Bordeaux production style has the grapes harvested much earlier in the year than the International style. This change has a dramatic effect on the wine. The drinker will notice markedly different aromas- what was dark berries turn to red berries. What was plum will turn to strawberries and raspberries. What was black cherry turns to red cherry, and so on.

The wine will also have considerably less tannins in it than an International Style, and it will be noticeably more acidic with less natural sweetness to it. This will change the way that you pair the wine, as well as the preference to style that a drinker may have. A Bordeaux style wine will pair excellently with tomato based dishes and many types of cheeses, making it an excellent companion for Italian style dishes.

In comparison to this, an International Style of Merlot will have enough body and finish for you to pair it with beef dishes. Things like burgers and medium fatted steaks will go excellently. Roasted red meats will too make a fantastic pairing- the roasting of the meat will add a beautiful complexity to the wine, and the fruity nature of Merlot means that it will add something special to the meat as well.

What’s the Difference Between Malbec and Merlot?

One of the major differences between Malbec and Merlot is the popularity in regions. Malbec is decidedly more popular in New World vineyards, whereas Merlot has a strong grip over Old World wineries. Merlot is a lot more terroir dependent- you may have two wines of the same grape from different parts of the world and not even realise that it is the same grape. In contrast to this, Malbec, while it still sees differences between regions, is a little more dependable than Merlot.

The similarities between these grapes cannot be ignored either- both have flavors of berries, and the differences between temperatures affects the flavors in a similar fashion. They both go very well with beef and cheese, although Merlot has a slightly larger range than that of Malbec. Malbec is also lower in acidity than Merlot, and has softer tannins than Merlot, even as a young wine.

Final Notes

Malbec and Merlot are two wines that can be considered relatively similar to the untrained taste. In fact, even to the trained taste they can be considered similar: Malbec has even been described as a ‘rustic’ version of Merlot. The key differences between these two wines lay in the levels of acidity, and the softness of the tannins.

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