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Cabernet vs. Merlot

The real secret about Cabernet vs Merlot is that they’re very closely related. But the question still stands:

Which one should I get?

Cabernet Sauvignon

Pick a Cabernet if you want…

  • savory black currant and pepper flavors
  • higher tannin
  • longer finish
  • a great gift wine
  • drinks well without food

Merlot

Pick a Merlot if you want…

  • fruit-driven plum and cherry flavors
  • less tannin
  • smoother finish
  • cheaper
  • food pairing partner

Which is Sweeter? Cabernet vs. Merlot

Technically neither but, as a matter of taste, Merlot tends to taste more fruity and thus, sweeter. Of course, this very much depends on where it’s from.

A lil’ History on Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon

Both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon came into being sometime during the 1600s and 1700s in the Bordeaux region of France.

Since then, the two grapes have become the single two most popular red wine varieties (by sheer acreage) in the world. What’s surprising is that both wine varieties share Cabernet Franc as a parent grape.

This means they’re siblings! (well, half-siblings–if you want to nit-pick).


Which is bolder? Cabernet vs. Merlot?

If both wines are produced in the same manner from the same area, Cabernet Sauvignon will usually taste bolder because of its high tannin content. However, there are many bold Merlot wines out there.

If you are looking for bolder Merlot wines, a good piece of advice is to look for one from warmer climate regions (like California). You can also seek out wines from hillside estates. When the vineyards are more exposed to sun and wind (on hills) they tend to produce grapes with thicker skins and thus, bolder tannins.


Styles of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon

Where the wine is grown will also greatly affect the flavor. For instance, Merlot from Bordeaux tastes much more savory than Merlot from California. Regions are generally split into two styles, often referred to as ‘old world’ and ‘new world’:

  • Cool Climate Region (aka ‘old world’) Produces wines with higher acidity and more subtle fruit flavors. Wines from cool climates tend to taste more savory vs. fruity
  • Hot Climate Region (aka ‘new world’) Produces wines with body and bolder fruit flavors. Wines from hot climates tend to have increased alcohol content and taste inherently sweeter.
Clone 337 Cabernet Sauvignon produces smaller grapes making bolder and more complex wines. Photo from Franciscan Estate

Cool Climate Cabernet & Merlot

Cool climate wines are more structured with a higher presence of tannin and earthy flavors like tobacco and tar. Some cool climate Merlot are mistaken as Cabernet Sauvignon.

France, Italy, Chile*, South Africa*

A classic example of cool climate Merlot and Cabernet wine is from Bordeaux. For Merlot-based wines look for St. Émilion, Pomerol and Fronsac. For Cabernet-based red wines look for Médoc and Pessac-Léognan.

*Both Chile and South Africa typically have both high herbal/savory flavors as well as fruit.

Examples

Château Faugères a Merlot-based wine from the right-bank (St. Èmilion) in Bordeaux with serious fruit presence.

Château Sénejac a Cabernet-based wine from the left bank (Haut-Médoc) in Bordeaux with serious tannin presence.


Hot Climate Cabernet & Merlot

Warm climate wines are more about fruit flavors and tannin is less prevalent. Some warm climate Cabernet Sauvignon are mistaken for Merlot. Some producers use oak-aging to give wine more structure.

California, Australia, Argentina, Washington

For good values on Cabernet and Merlot check out California, South Australia and Mendoza, Argentina. If you’re looking for high quality Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, hone your focus in on Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Columbia Valley (in Washington State) and Coonawarra (in Australia).

Examples

Clarendon Hills Merlot a rich fruity Merlot with abundant herbal notes and bottle age from Australia.

Decoy Cabernet Sauvignon a second label of Duckhorn producing a great entry-level Cabernet Sauvignon with savory black currant and olive notes.

About Madeline Puckette

I'm a certified sommelier and creator of the NYT Bestseller, Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine. Find me out there in the wine world @WineFolly