Merlot vs Cabernet Sauvignon: What’s the Difference?

Six bottles of red wine lined up on a rack with some vineyard photos in the background.
Merlot and cabernet sauvignon are two of the most popular types of red wine in the world. Image by Andrea Falzetti from Pixabay

Merlot and Cabernet are both red wines that are commonly grown and sold around the world. While Cabernet commonly refers to the most popular of the Cabernets, Cabernet Sauvignon it can also refer to a multitude of different types of grape, such as Cabernet Franc, Gros, or Dorsa- and more.

Cabernet Sauvignon is in fact a hybrid grape, created from Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. For the purposes of ease, this article will be focusing predominantly on Cabernet Sauvignon as it is the most commercially available wine, and the most widely grown grape variety in the world (since 2015).

In contrast to the complexities of the Cabernet family, Merlot is a grape that is used both for blending (mixing two or more types of grape together to create a blend that is unique to each winery)- commonly with Cabernet, or for varietal wine (a single type of grape used to produce a bottle of wine).

The popularity of Merlot in both varietal wines and blended wines means that it is one of the most widely grown grape varieties in the world- in fact for the majority of the 20th century, the Merlot grape was the most widely grown grape until it was taken over by Cabernet Sauvignon.

Merlot

The Merlot grape originates from the Cabernet region in France, and to this day it is the most widely grown grape there, but now it is also grown and produced across the world. The flavour profile of Merlot can vary greatly depending on the way that it was produced, as there are two different methods that are commonly used to make the wine.

The ‘Bordeaux Style’ of Merlot production is the lesser-used but commonly found in Old World wine regions. Old World wine refers to countries that have been producing wine for over 400 years- so mainly European Countries such as France, Spain, and Portugal. New World wine refers to countries that have been producing wine for less than 400 years, so the United States, Australia, Chile, and so on.

When Merlot is produced using the ‘Bordeaux Style’, the grapes are harvested early which leaves the wine with a medium-body, and with a much more noticeable line of acidity. It also has fresh, young, red berry notes to it. This is in contrast to the ‘International Style’, which sees the grapes being harvested later in the season (and at a more complete level of ripeness).

This later harvest means that the grapes are more mature, with a more balanced level of natural sugar to them. This means that the wine is more full-bodied and the notes of fruit will have progressed from red berries like strawberries and raspberries, to darker fruits like blackberries and plum.

While the Bordeaux Style of Merlot production is mainly practiced in Bordeaux, not all the wineries in this region do practice this kind of winemaking- many have adopted the International Style instead. Equally, wines produced in a cooler climate will have higher levels of acidity, whereas warmer climate wine will have more of a jammy, fruitier flavor to them.

How you pair your Merlot with food will depend on the type of Merlot that you have. If you have a cooler climate or a Bordeaux style of wine then try pairing it with dishes that have high levels of umami and salt flavors, like a mushroom sauce, bacon, or even a Salmon. This is because the fruit in the wine will balance these flavors perfectly.

International Style Merlots can be paired in a similar way to Cabernet. The tannins in a full-bodied Merlot mean that it can really stand up to and pair very well with dishes that are high in fat, like steaks. This is because tannins and fat bind together, improving the taste of the wine and the steak.

Cabernet Sauvignon

As we mentioned above, Cabernet can mean many different types of wine, but Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular and widely known. It is also a hybrid plant of the Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. It was originally produced in the Southwestern region of France and it’s thought to be so popular among winemakers because it is very easy to grow.

As with most types of wine, the taste and flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon can be influenced greatly by the way that it has been produced. Typically with Cabernet, the biggest influencers in taste come from whether it has been aged or fermented in oak barrels and the level of maceration the grape experiences before the production. Maceration is the term used to describe skin to grape contact, and it influences the level of tannins in the wine.

The longer the period of maceration, the more the wine will need to be aged in order to mellow out the harsh tannin of the wine. The high levels of tannin and the natural acidity of Cabernet make it a great choice for aging.

If the Cabernet Sauvignon has been aged or fermented in oak barrels then it will have notes of things such as tobacco, vanilla, and leather. If the Cabernet is from a cooler climate then you can expect higher levels of acidity alongside notes of blackberries, cedar, and green bell peppers. Warmer climates will invite you to black current and black cherry flavour notes. The warmer the climate, the sweeter and fruitier (or more ‘jammy’) you can expect your wine to be.

Cabernet Sauvignon pairs perfectly with dishes that have a lot of fat on them, such as a flavourful cut of steak. The reason for this is that the tannins in the Cabernet bind with the fat in the steak, bringing out the best in both flavors.

What’s the Difference Between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon?

Both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are full-bodied, hearty red wines from Southern regions of France. They both display notes of berries and can have acidic tangs to them. The difference between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon is the levels of tannins and acidity. Merlot is typically in the middle of the scale for both tannins and acidity, whereas Cabernet is very high in both.

Both wines compete with each other for the most widely grown grape, and both are used in several famous blended wines- such as the Bordeaux blend.

If you are looking for a wine to go with a meal then both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are excellent choices. They are both hearty red wines, but if you are looking for a good red wine to drink by itself then Merlot is probably a better choice because of the levels of acidity and tannins that are found in Cabernet Sauvignon.

One of the major differences between Merlot and Cabernet stems from the way that the wine is produced. This also means that one Merlot may be very different from another Merlot, as the production means that they are now different types of wine, which in turn means they have very different properties.

As with everything in wine tasting, it’s your own personal preference that matters most when choosing a wine. And with such a large and diverse number of offerings to be found among merlot and cabernet, you’re almost certain to find many bottles you love of both types.

LOGIN INTO YOUR ACCOUNT