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Pinot Noir vs. Merlot: What’s the Difference?

A bunch of merlot grapes at a vineyard.
Merlot grapes at a vineyard. Image by PhilippeFifties from Pixabay

Pinot Noir and Merlot are both very common red wines, but there are several key differences between the two, and several key points that make them similar to each other as well. This article will offer a comprehensive understanding about what makes these two wines similar, and what sets them apart.

From areas of growth to fermentation methods, there is a lot to know about these two legendary wines. Keep reading to learn about the differences between these two popular wines.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is usually a light to medium bodied red wine, with a beautiful garnet color- sometimes stretching to slightly orange. The grapes are thought to be from France, specifically related to the Burgundy region of the country. Their name is the French word for ‘black pine’, thought to be a reference to the color and shape of the grape vines.

Despite the common associations Pinot Noir has with the Burgundy Region of France, this grape is a worldwide sensation. It is grown all over the planet, but it fairs best in cooler temperatures. Some of the regions that are famous for their Pinot Noir include places such as Oregon and the Central Coast in the USA, Walker Bay and Elgin, located in South Africa, and areas in both New Zealand and in Australia.

While the Pinot Noir grape is often used in varietal wines (wines made from just one type of grape), it is also used in many types of famous blends of wine- perhaps the most famous of which is champagne. The reason why champagne can use a red grape without itself presenting as red is because the grapes are skinned before being used to produce the wine. The skin of a red grape is what gives red wine both its color and its tannin levels.

Pinot Noir is a notoriously temperamental plant. It is very sensitive to the weather- particularly frost and wind- as well as diseases that may befall a vine- things such as leaf-rot that render the grapes unusable. It also demands to be kept relatively low to the ground and can be quite sensitive to things such as pruning and the type of soil that it is grown in.

Despite all of these potential problems with growing the vines, Pinot Noir is still one of the most popular wine varietals on the market today, boasting a broad range of quality- from affordable and friendly wine for under $10 a bottle, to the most expensive wine on the market: Leroy Musigny Grand Cru. Some winemakers deliberately cultivate a low yield, as this promises a higher quality wine.

The typical flavor notes of a Pinot Noir depends heavily on the terroir of the vineyard and the methods of fermentation and even the types of yeast that are used. Unlike say, Cabernet Sauvignon, which is quite a robust and reliable wine in terms of flavor, Pinot Noirs can vary hugely in taste. For Pinot Noir, the wine is just a platform for the terroir to express itself.

However, in a very broad sense, when sampling a Pinot Noir, you may find yourself exploring primary aromas of various berries. Cherries- both red and black, will make an appearance, and perhaps so will raspberries, currents, blackberries, and more. It is fairly usual for this wine to have the presence of black and red berries.

As mentioned, different areas and wineries produce markedly different styles of wine. Burgundy has, traditionally, preferred a relatively Brett style of wine- which at times is considered a fault, and at other times it considered to add complexity. Brett flavorings will bring a farmyard scent to their wines.

In contrast to this, warmer climate growth such as Californian Pinot Noir, will edge much more closely to a medium bodied wine- and may have more in common with a Malbec than it would with another Pinot Noir.

Pairing a Pinot Noir is easier than it may seem. It’s a great choice for die-hard red wine fans when they want to pair with a dish that is typically paired with a white wine. It’s also a good choice for white wine drinkers who are dipping their toes into the world of red for the first time.

Classic pairings for a fruity light bodied Pinot Noir include things such as roasted white meat- think roast chicken, and roast turkey. It also goes well with meatier fish- things like tuna steaks and salmon- as the strong flavors of these can easily overpower a white. It will also go well with a lot of different kinds of pastas- the fruit will help to carry the tomato sauce, but try to avoid a beefy dish.

Merlot

Merlot has long been in a tussle with Cabernet Sauvignon for which is the most grown grape across the planet. After being overtaken in 2015, Merlot production has plateaued a little- but that does not stop it from being one of the worlds favorite wines. In fact- it is the most grown grape in the famous Bordeaux region.

Merlot was originally cultivated in the Bordeaux region of France and is popular for the making of both varietal wines and blended wines, the most famous of which is the Bordeaux blend. Outside of France, Merlot is popular around the world- most notably gaining popularity in 1991 after an episode of 60 minutes aired in America which spoke about the potential health benefits of wine.

There are two different ways of producing Merlot, one of which is predominantly favored by New World wineries (found in countries that have been producing wine for less than 400 years, places such as the United States, Chile, and Australia). This is called the International Method.

The International Method of producing Merlot sees the grapes being harvested later in the season. This later harvest will allow for a sweeter wine with more developed tannins. It will also have a much more noticeable dark fruit palate, boasting dark berries such as blackberries, plums, and so on. This style of wine will also have a darker color than its counterpart, the Bordeaux Style.

The Bordeaux Style of Merlot production tends to be favored by Old World wineries- that is wineries in a country that has been producing wine for longer than 400 years. These countries are concentrated in Europe, Northern Africa, and parts of the Middle East.

The Bordeaux Style of Merlot production sees the grapes being harvested earlier in the year. This comparatively early harvest means that the wine has less tannins in it, and a much firmer line of acidity. It will also have different primary aromas- instead of blackberries it will have more of a red berry flavor. These flavors could be raspberries, strawberries, cherries, and more.

Pairing a Merlot will depend a little on the style of Merlot that you intend to drink. If you’d like an international style wine, then it will likely have a full body. This full and fruity body will allow you to pair it with things like burgers, beef dishes, and roasted meats like lamb and beef- the perfect sunday lunch!

If you choose instead a Bordeaux Style of wine then it will pair well with Italian Style dishes. Things like pizza, meatballs, and even lasagne. This is because merlot goes very well with both cheese and tomato, and the fruits in the wine will stand up to a beef sauce very well.

What’s the Difference Between Pinot Noir and Merlot?

There are quite a few key differences between Pinot Noir and Merlot. Both grapes originate from France and are now grown in many different places in the world. Both grapes are red wines, and can be medium bodied. However, this is not the norm. Pinot Noir is usually made as a light bodied wine, and Merlot is commonly bought as a full bodied wine.

They both pair well with roasted meats, but Merlot fits roasted red meats whereas Pinot Noir suits white meats. They both have aromas of berries, but the predominant berry is different each time. Pinot Noir is also more susceptible to Brett, whereas Melot rarely encounters this complexity.

Merlot is also markedly more popular- in terms of quantity produced and consumed. Pinot Noir on the other hand, could be argued is the more prestigious grape. With its place in champagne blends and its extremely high quality, high market bottles.

Final Notes

Pinot Noir and Merlot are both excellent and very popular wines. Pinot Noir is a great choice for white wine drinkers who wish to expand their repertoire into red wines, and Merlot is a great, easy drinking wine for people who want to start out with a friendly red.

There are many differences between the two wines, but they are both excellent choices, whether in a restaurant, at home with a meal, or just relaxing with friends.

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