One of the most fun aspects of wine is trying to decide what to drink on any given night. It can also be one of the more challenging aspects, with thousands of varieties to choose from and hundreds of thousands of labels.
To help answer that question, we have written a few articles about the differences between wines commonly seen on a grocery store shelf or restaurant wine list. This article is just a part of that series.
Now, onto the main question: what are the differences between Merlot and Chianti? To start off let’s hear from our editorial lead and sommelier, Rob Wyngard for his take and then we’ll get into some more detail down below.
Let’s look at these two grapes separately and explain a little of their history, and outline the most common examples that you’ll see out in the world.
What Makes Merlot Special
Merlot is a grape from Bordeaux that has become a widely planted, and widely lampooned, variety. While in Bordeaux it is a large component of some of the most expensive wines in the world, from the Right Bank of the Gironde, in the rest of the world it has been relegated to mediocrity, with a smattering being thrown in some Cabernets to add some fleshy character. It is rarely bottled on its own, though where it is it often depends on the price point whether the wine is worth trying or not. In parts of Friuli and Maremma in Italy, Napa Valley, and Washington State, Merlot makes amazingly beautiful wines, with restrained fruit and soft tannins, easy to drink young but able to improve with age.
Characterized by its fleshy sweetness and soft tannins, Merlot can also exhibit some herbaceous character depending on how ripe it was when it was picked. In terms of the total amount of tannins Merlot is actually a medium tannin variety, but shows them in a lush and velvety style. Sweet plummy fruit flavors and an affinity to be high alcohol can help it lend body and richness to a blend, while Cabernet gives structure and tannin. Merlot is an easy going, easy drinking wine in almost all cases, though more serious styles can be found.
What’s Makes Chianti Special
Chianti, the region, is most famous for the wine made from Sangiovese, and many people still know it from the ‘Fiascoes’, or straw bottle covers, that used to be wrapped around large jugs of the wine, which grew in popularity in the 1970’s and onward. Nowadays most Chianti is bottled normally, although you can still find an old-school bottle every now and then. Sangiovese, the grape used to make Chianti and Chianti Classico (the heart of the region), is actually grown all throughout Italy. It appears in some of their most famous wines like Chianti or Brunello, but also is grown in high yielding vineyards on the coastal plains, where it is used for supermarket bulk wines packed in boxes or jugs. Tuscany, where Chianti is located, is where Sangiovese gained its fame.
Wines made from Sangiovese can range in style from big, brooding oaked wines meant for aging and light, zippy, cherry flavored wines meant for early consumption. However, generally with wines labelled Chianti or Chianti Classico you are looking at a good middle ground: medium tannins, high acidity, medium alcohol, and bright cherry flavors. Depending on whether or not it has an age designation, like Riserva or Gran Selezione, you may get more oak flavor and the wine may have slightly higher tannin levels. The best part about Chianti, however, is its ability to pair with food, especially pizza and pasta; which makes sense, as it is made in the heart of Italy, where pizza and pasta are a daily part of life!
How Merlot & Chianti Are Different and Similar
Comparing Merlot and Chianti can be summed up in one word: acid.
Chianti is renowned for its bright, zingy cherry flavors and high acidity that helps it to cut through rich Tuscan dishes.
Merlot, on the other hand, is a soft and easy drinking wine, with velvety tannins and mild acidity. Merlot is also a fuller bodied wine than Chianti.
Chianti tends to have lower alcohol, and medium tannins, while Merlot has high alcohol and medium tannins. As mentioned above, Chianti is best paired with Italian dishes, where it can hold up to even rich dishes like Boar Bolognese and Bistecca Florentina.
Merlot would most likely also pair with those dishes, but would not cut the richness nearly as well due to its milder acidity. More powerful styles of Merlot, such as Pomerol or St. Emilion from Bordeaux (which are blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, usually), could pair with meatier dishes like pork tenderloin or pan-seared steak. However, in general Merlot is not quite as versatile as Chianti, due to its lack of fat cutting acidity combined with its higher tannin level.
On its own, acidity again answers the question of which would be better. Merlot can be drunk without tiring out the palate for quite a while, though the tannins would build after a time. Chianti can also be drunk over a long period, though the acidity could wear on the mouth after a while. Both are capable of long bottle aging in higher quality examples, but the large majority of Chianti and Merlot on the market are meant to be drunk young.
To fully understand these concepts you might find the following articles helpful. They explain what exactly tannins are, what acidity in wine tastes/feels like, and why some wines taste better after aging.
You can also see more comparison pieces in this series below: