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Merlot vs. Shiraz: What’s the Difference?

Bunches of Syrah grapes on the vine at a vineyard.
Syrah grapes at a vineyard. Image by Juan José Berhó from Pixabay.

Merlot and Shiraz are two very popular wines on the market. They have many similar characteristics as well as some different nuances and complexities that distinguish them, but once you understand their major differences, you’ll be able to clearly categorize them without any problem.

Merlot

Merlot is one of the most popular red grape varieties in the world. It is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, as is the case in Bordeaux blends.

The name of the Merlot grape variety derives from the desirability of its berries, which are particularly appreciated not only by our palates but also by the blackbirds of the same name in French (merle) which are a similar color as the grape variety. It made its first appearance in Gironde, a splendid land in south-western France, but it was not long before it spread to all the wine-growing regions of the world.

When produced as a single varietal, Merlot wine makes wines with good alcohol content and an intense, impenetrable ruby red color that tends towards garnet with aging. On the nose, both red and black berries stand out such as currants, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, black cherries and plums. On the palate, Merlot wine is soft and juicy. It has a good structure, balanced acidity and defined tannins, but at the same time it is often velvety, made even softer with aging.

There are also white wine versions of Merlot. In fact, its versatility means that it can even be made into sparkling wines or rosés, which are both fresh and easy to drink.

Pair it with: hors d’oeuvres with cured meats, blue or medium-long aged cheeses, meat-based first courses, risottos with porcini mushrooms, roasts, boiled meats, grilled meats and white and red meats. In its more aged versions, Merlot can also be enjoyed as a meditation wine thanks to its moderate alcohol content. Its optimal serving temperature is about 15-17°.

Shiraz

Shiraz or Syrah is an international grape variety characterized for having fruity and spicy notes, typically associated with black pepper. It has become famous in the northern area of the Rhone Valley, France. Syrah has also had great success in Australia, where it is known as Shiraz. Syrah is made into wine on its own as well as blended with other local or international grapes.

The origin of Syrah is still a mystery today. Some trace its history back to the city of Shiraz, in present-day Iran, while others claim that it was exported by the Romans from Egypt to the city of Syracuse. However, recent DNA analysis of the vine has established that Syrah may have originated from a spontaneous cross between two local French grapes, Mondeuse Blanche and Dureza.

It is certain that Syrah was already successfully cultivated in France in the Middle Ages, more precisely in the Rhone Valley. Here, since the 13th century, some of the most elegant Syrah wines have been produced, thanks to the continental climate and the excellent temperature range of these famous vineyards. Around the middle of the nineteenth century some specimens of Syrah were taken from Montpellier to Australia and started to spread like wildfire under the name of Shiraz. Thus, it became the second homeland of Syrah.

Today Syrah is an international grape variety grown in France, Australia (where it is the most important red grape variety), Spain, Argentina, California, Chile, Portugal, Italy, and others.

Syrah is a vigorous vine which adapts well to various climatic and environmental conditions and, although it can suffer from water stress and chlorosis, it is considered fairly robust. It likes clay soils with a good skeletal component and requires medium-long pruning. It ripens medium-late and has a good, constant production, which, if not controlled, can lead to excess production per vine, with a consequent deterioration in the quality of the grapes.

The aromas of Syrah are quite intense and are very much influenced by climatic and cultivation conditions. Syrah wines produced in cooler climates are characterised by notes of violet, raspberry, currant, cherry and wild mint, while for those produced in warmer areas notes of blackberry jam, plum, blueberry and liquorice stand out.

Syrah is a very long-lived wine that lends itself very well to ageing in wood, with which it acquires notes of bitter cocoa, tobacco, coffee, caramelised sugar and tar. It is dense, sensual and voluminous on the palate. The alcohol content is quite high and the tannins have a fine grain while the finish is persistent. The taste is also deeply influenced by the environmental and cultivation conditions: the northern area of the Rhone Valley produces very elegant, soft and less tannic Syrah wines, while the Australian style prefers full-bodied, concentrated and opulent Syrahs.

Pair it with: grilled or stewed red meat as well as lamb. It is also excellent with mature cheeses and green pepper as well as with savory cold cuts such as cured hams.

What’s the Difference Between Merlot and Shiraz?

There are many differences between Merlot and Shiraz. For example, Merlot is a grape that is soft and fleshy and its early ripening makes it popular for blending with later ripening grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, while Shiraz is a grape variety mainly used for blending with other varieties when it is very ripe.

Another difference is that Merlot is grown extensively in the Bordeaux region of France (though also grown in Italy, Romania, the United States, Chile, and Australia), while Shiraz excels in the climates of California, Australia and is widely grown in the Rhone Valley of France.

Also, Merlot is a delicate, flavorful, medium-bodied wine which is a better wine for beginning tasters. It has a fruity, delicate flavor with a velvety mouthfeel and hints of berries, plum and currant, while Shiraz is a fuller bodied, bold and powerful wine with earthy qualities of pepper, truffle and leather. It has more tannins and is dense, plentiful and intense.

Finally, Merlots can be paired with any type of food. Sweeter, fruitier Merlots go well with dishes such as salmon, mushroom dishes and vegetables such as chard. Light-bodied Merlots can go well with shellfish such as shrimp or scallops, as well as bacon or ham. Merlots tend not to go well with strong, blue cheeses, which can overpower the fruit flavors of the wine. Shiraz, on the other hand, is generally paired with red meats, steaks, game meats and thick stews.

Final Notes

While both Merlot and Shiraz are red wines with some inherent similarities, they are also quite different in many important ways. In general, Merlot is considered a more accessible wine with easier pairings, while the intense and earthy notes of Shiraz make it a bit more challenging. As with anything in wine tasting, the bottle you choose will depend not only on the food it will be paired with but also your own personal taste.

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