Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are both considered to be big dogs in the wine world. Both originating in Bordeaux, France in the 1400’s; Cabernet seemed to gain early ground on the international market and is now the world’s most widely planted grape.
Merlot is often forgotten about but is commonly the key ingredient used to make some of the world’s most popular red blends. While many people cannot tell the difference between the two, there are many distinct and important differences to compare that can help you choose the best wine for your needs, whether you are participating in a blind tasting or just picking up a bottle to pair with dinner.
Being split in half by the Gironde Estuary, and further south by the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers, the climate and soils in Bordeaux vary widely and offer the ideal climates for both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Cabernet resides on the Left Bank of the Medoc (the name of the sub-region that contains eight major appellations) in the northern Bordeaux region. While Merlot and Cabernet Franc also grow here (as well as very little amounts of Carmenere, Malbec, and Petit Verdot), Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant grape.
All the wines on the Left Bank are blends, using Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and others to soften out and add complexities to the usually abrasive Cabernet Sauvignon. It is on the Left Bank where you will find a gravely soil containing limestone deep in the ground, making it the opportune place for Cabernet to grow its deep roots in an area that is well-drained.
Merlot thrives living on Right Bank of the Medoc region where the soil contains more clay with limestone more reachable for the vines, allowing the roots to have a cooler temperature and delay ripening too early.
Confusion is common when buying international wines as label laws are different and French wine, for example, is labeled by appellation and cru, assuming you know what you are buying. In terms of labeling, an easy way to clarify what the varietal of the wine is; is to look for the 1855 Classification labels.
This puts 61 of the Left Bank wineries from the top appellations at the time into five categories from the First Growth to the Fifth Growth. If it has one of these labels it will be a Cabernet Sauvignon. An unclassified red from the Medoc will most likely be Merlot.
Keep in mind that some vintages are better for certain wineries and appellations than others. You can easily do a search for the top vintage years of the Left Bank wineries or for a specific chateau you are looking to buy. If you ever get confused, don’t be too shy to ask for help or look up what kind of wine it is.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are also planted widely throughout California, Washington, and Australia. While it is important to focus on the origins and history of these wines in France, other countries also produce very high-quality Cabs and Merlots that can compete alongside France.
There are differences in the flavors and aromas of the wines between the Old World and the New World, as well as unique differences just between regions.
This is due to different soils, climates, yearly weather patterns and temperatures, winemaking styles, and even laws that can dictate what you can legally blend or add sugar to. The best part about wine is finding the unique varietal and style that suits your taste out of the hundreds of thousands of wines out there.
Cabernet is a small grape that has a thick skin, in turn creating am often tannic wine. This is also a reason why it is more expensive than Merlot and other red wines; the juice yield is low because the size of the grape is so small.
Because this wine needs some time to smooth out, even with the help of blending, you will notice your favorite winery releasing their Cabernets three years or so after the vintage, while other wines such as a Sauvignon Blanc will be released much sooner.
When buying Cabs look for five-year-old vintages or earlier for a nice bottle you can drink now. Even better, by one that has been aged and a more recent vintage, so you can compare the two and take notes on how aging effects wine.
Merlot on the other hand has a bigger grape size but a smaller yield from the field, as it doesn’t like to be too crowded when it grows and thrives in otherwise hard to grow areas.
It produces more juice than Cabernet but needs to be harvested soon after ripening because they tend to over ripen very quickly which can lead to wine that is too sweet with low tannins and acidity. Being less acidic, Merlots don’t need to be aged as long, although some can age quite well, so they are great when you are looking for a wine to drink immediately.
The cool climate of Bordeaux, Washington, Northern California and Chile allow Cabernet Sauvignon to show a larger cherry and red berry profile with a slightly lighter body.
Warmer climates such as Australia, South Africa, Argentina, Spain and Southern Italy allow Cabs to express a more fruit forward profile with slightly more astringent tannins and a generally higher alcohol content.
Again, Merlot thrives in high-elevation and hilly areas, but has low yields compared to its counterpart. However, there are a wider variety of flavors when grown in different regions. California, Argentina, and Australian Merlots tend to produce blackberry and vanilla flavors. Washington, Chile and France bring forward more plum and cedar.
This can also be contributed to winemaking styles and types of oak used. For instance, those wines aged in American oak tend to be much more herbaceous and have notes of tobacco and dill.
Comparatively, there are subtle differences between the two varietals that can help you tell the difference drinking them side by side. Merlot tends to be less tannic and more fruit forward with flavors of cherry, raspberry, chocolate and cedar.
Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be more tannic with a higher alcohol content with flavors of spices, black current, red bell pepper and cedar. Merlot is classified as a medium-bodied red while Cabernet is classified as full-bodied.
When it comes to food and wine pairing it is often believed that you can pair the same dishes with either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. However, Merlot is much more versatile and each of these wines unique characteristics should be taken into consideration to get the perfect pairing.
Cabernet should be paired with foods just as bold as itself. Beef dishes are among the most common pairing, but it also pairs nicely with buffalo, game meats and barbeque.
Having a softer profile allows Merlot to also be a fine pairing with the above dishes but is also a great choice for pastas, tomato-based dishes, lamb, and a cheese heavy chicken dish.
Also Check: Sauvignon Blanc Vs Chardonnay
Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are among the most commonly blended grapes; and for very different reasons. Cabernets are bold and tannic, typically being the dominant grape in blends. However, it often needs to be softened out in order to make a more drinkable wine that doesn’t need as much age, making it the wine that different grapes are being blended into.
However, red wines that are too sweet or need more tannin often call for Cabernet. Merlot often is blended in with wines that need to be softened out with a less tannic and more fruit-forward wine. Not surprisingly, these two wines are often blended together.
A good thing to note is that Left Bank wines are typically Cabernet Sauvignon blended with a little Merlot, while wines from the Right Bank are typically Merlot blended in with a little Cabernet Sauvignon. Of course, this only applies to bottles from France.
Winemakers from other countries and regions, especially New World regions, often choose to create other blends to create a wine that suits their needs for tannin, acidity and body levels.
Many countries and regions legally allow up to 15% of the wine to be made from grapes other than the wine labeled. For example, a wine could be labeled as Merlot, but it could contain up to 15% of Malbec or Syrah without needing to put that on the label. This allows winemakers to further customize their wine; adding to or lessening flavors, tannins, and acidity.
Cabernet Sauvignon: Pros and Cons
Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted grape in the world, making it very accessible and is a must in all liquor and wine stores as well as on wine menus in restaurants. Some of the most notorious wines in France are the Cabs from the Left Bank of the Medoc.
The booming popularity and wild success that it has had on the international markets has also made it a generally more expensive wine than Merlot and its other red counterparts.
Because Cabernet is generally very tannic, it is the ideal wine to age and add to your cellar. Look for older vintages when you are buying wine in stores or hold onto it for a couple of years if you have the patience.
Merlot: Pros and Cons
Merlot is also planted in a wide variety of countries and regions. However, many vineyards only plant enough to use for blends and Merlot naturally has a smaller yield than other grapes. On the bright side, those looking for a great red wine can find a Merlot cheaper than a Cabernet Sauvignon and still have a premium quality wine.
Merlot also has more uses than Cabernet as it is so often used in blends. Many New World markets such as the United States and Australia prefer to make wine that is drinkable at purchase and requires less aging. Smoothing a wine out by blending it with Merlot allows winemakers to lower the tannin levels, making it drinkable quicker.
While many of them can benefit from sitting in the bottle for few years, the tannins will smooth out quicker than a Cabernet or Syrah. Merlot is also easier to pair with foods, as it can hold up to big beef dishes, but is also suitable for lamb.
All-in-all, it is no wonder that Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are two of the most popular wines in the world. They are not however, interchangeable, as they each have a unique history, tasting profile, age ability, and pairing preference. Fortunately, the best way to continue learning about wine is to taste more!