Two big bold reds, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, are competitors in the favorite red category. These grape varieties have an intertwined family tree, making them closely related as half-siblings.
What is the difference between a Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot?
Most people will often have a hard time distinguishing between a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot. However, Merlots tend to be slightly sweeter and softer, while Cabernets tends to have higher tannins and acidity.
Both these wines are full-bodied, enjoyable wines, so we’ll help break down the origins, flavor profiles, and key differences that make each of these wines unique.
Origin and Profile of Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon was cultivated in 17th century France as a cross between a Sauvignon Blanc and a Cabernet Franc. It grew to popularity as a varietal in the Bordeaux region of France. However, in France the grape has typically been blended with other varieties, even if the primary variety is Cabernet Sauvignon.
Warm climates bring out the flavors in this wine to make it a strong varietal wine. A varietal wine is where just one grape is used to make the wine, as opposed to a blend of grapes. In warm climates, like Napa Valley, the soil is less important to the flavor of the wine. Well draining soil that radiates heat back to the vine helps ripen and improve the flavor of the grapes.
In the 1970s, a Cabernet Sauvignon from California was entered in a blind taste test in Paris, ultimately winning against well established, world-renowned French vineyards. Today, Cabernet is arguably the most grown wine variety in the world.
Varietal Cabernet Sauvignons are high in tannins, medium acidity, and mid to dry. However, climate and soil can have a big impact on the final result of the wine. For example, Cabernet Sauvignons that are grown on the valley floor of Napa Valley tend to be less tannic and robust than the wines grown on the rocky, hilly slopes. These wines tend to have bigger, bolder flavors and may require years to age before reaching a prime drinkability. They also average higher alcohol contents, often exceeding 14%.
California commonly uses oak barrels for aging Cabernet’s, which result in some oak aromas in the finished wines. These wines have flavors of black currant, blackberry, jams, or black cherries and plum. Cabernet is also known for having a high amount of Pyrazine, the compounds responsible for the green bell pepper/vegetal flavor found in wine. Typically these flavors are associated with picking the grapes to early and under ripe, as Pyrazines are reduced during the ripening process, but the impulse to remove this flavor has to be balanced against the sugar content and potential alcohol.
Select Cabernets that are at least a few years older than their vintage, but take an opportunity to lay down a couple of high-quality wines to enjoy them after ten or more years.
Origin and Profile of Merlot
Similar to the Cabernet, Merlot was cultivated in the Bordeaux region of France during the 18th century. For a long time, the parentage of the Merlot variety was fairly unknown, though through DNA analysis determined to be descendant from Cabernet Franc, like the Cabernet Sauvignon, and an unknown varietal later named Magdeleine Noire des Charentes around 2008.
Merlot took much longer to gain popularity than did the Cabernet, with diseases and downturns causing several years of Merlot to be thrown out in the 1960s and even banned from being grown in France in the 1970s. However, the varietal gained a lot of popularity in the United States in the 1990s, making Merlot the second most commonly planted grape variety after Cabernet Sauvignon in the world today.
The Merlot grape has a rich, bluish-black color that imparts an inky color into the wine. The fruit can ripen very quickly which has led to two philosophies with the harvest: pick the fruit early to preserve acidity and tannins to make better aging wine, or pick later to result in more fruit-forward flavors and sweetness. The early harvest philosophy is often called the Bourdeaux style, while the late harvest style called the International style.
Merlots tend to have three distinctive flavor profiles, depending on the winemaker: high tannic wines that resemble Cabernets, fruity wines with the blackberry and plum notes, and then ones with vegetable notes like olives and tobacco. California Merlots will have varying flavors like the Cabernet, but more likely due to the harvest philosophy and partially the temperatures. Some wines will trend to blackberry and black raspberry notes while others show plum, tea leaf, and black cherry notes.
Merlots that age in barrels will tend to have highlights of caramel, chocolate, cocoa bean, and vanilla notes.
Differences between a Cab and Merlot
Despite these wines have ranging flavor profiles that can make them taste very similar, there are a few fundamental differences that make them distinctive.
Merlots will tend to be softer and fruitier in nature than a Cabernet Sauvignon, which trends towards high tannins and acidity. Merlots also tend to be sweeter than Cabs, even though both are traditionally dry wines.
Merlot also tends to be easier to drink than Cabernets, making them a better choice to serve when you have many guests. Cabernet Sauvignons is much more tannic and astringent so that if it’s younger than ten years or so, it should be allowed to breathe before serving to bring out the best flavors in this wine.
Since Cabernet Sauvignons age better than Merlots, good quality Cabs meant for aging tend to be more expensive than Merlots. However, with age they will have long finishes and savory flavors.
To truly judge the differences between these two varietals, make sure you pick up well-rated bottles and serve them as intended to be served. An aged Cabernet Sauvignon should be served around 60F and allowed to breathe, and then can be enjoyed alone or paired with red meats. Merlot can be paired with red meat as well as roasted chicken. To serve, chill Merlot down to 60-65F, and allow it to breathe for only about 20 minutes before drinking.
Depending on your wine preferences, you should be able to find a style of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot to fit your liking. At least, don’t write off one particular variety due to one bottle. Experimentation with different vineyards and styles is key to finding the perfect bold red for your tastes.