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. Check out the rest of the series here:
- What’s the Difference between Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon?
- What’s the Difference between Zinfandel and Chianti?
- What’s the Difference between Pinot Noir and Syrah/Shiraz?
- What’s the Difference between Merlot and Chianti?
Now, onto the main question: what are the differences between Merlot and Syrah/Shiraz? First, 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.
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.
Syrah was originally grown in the Rhone Valley of France, north of Provence and south of Burgundy. In the Northern Rhone, the red wines are made almost entirely of Syrah (sometimes co-fermented with a small amount of Viognier). In the Southern Rhone, it is a component of the GSM blend, or Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre, made famous by Chateauneuf-du-Pape. While Syrah has spread throughout the world, the second most famous region it is grown is Australia, where it is known as Shiraz. Commonly it is blended there with Cabernet Sauvignon, though it is just as commonly found as a varietal wine with 100% Shiraz. Some of the oldest planted vines in the world are found in Australia, which was never affected by Phylloxera, a vine louse that killed off a huge proportion of the world’s vineyards in the late 19th century. Many of these old vineyards are planted to Shiraz, with 100+ year old vineyards in some places.
As with other grapes, Syrah/Shiraz can change its taste considerably depending on where it is grown. In the Northern Rhone, in Syrah’s ancestral home in Cote-Rotie, the wine has blackberry, leather, and black pepper notes, with some wines showing meaty, bacon-y aromas. The tannins are present but not overpowering, and it has medium to high acidity and medium alcohol. When blended into the classic GSM wines of the Southern Rhone, Syrah contributes weight on the mid-palate and body. In Australia, the wines known as Shiraz are much more fruit forward, with plum, chocolate, and tar character shining through. The acidity is medium, and the tannins are smooth and velvety, mostly due to the noticeably higher proportion of new oak used in Australia. Alcohol content can be higher as well with the much riper fruit used.
Syrah/Shiraz and Merlot are both medium bodied, medium tannin, and medium to high alcohol wines, so where are the differences? The answer lies in the character of the tannins, and the flavor profiles of the two grapes. Syrah/Shiraz tannins can be quite harsh in regions like the Northern Rhone, needing time in barrel and in bottle to soften. Merlot’s tannins, on the other hand, are almost always lush and soft, giving a velvety mouthfeel and smooth finish. The flavors of Syrah/Shiraz are stronger as well, with French versions giving black pepper, bacon, and blackberry notes, while Australian ones can have dark chocolate, licorice, and blackberry jamflavors. Meanwhile, Merlot tends to have soft, velvet fruit to match its tannins. Plum and black cherry dominate, with lighter versions having some herbaceous flavors as well. For pairing, Merlot can drink well with Asian dishes, as can Syrah/Shiraz, but for different reasons. Merlot can be excellent with dishes like suckling pig or Peking Duck, which match the velvet character of Merlot, while Syrah/Shiraz can stand up to spicier Thai or Vietnamese dishes. To drink on their own, Merlot is certainly an easy wine to down glass after glass. However, unless it is a high-quality example, it probably will not develop much in the glass. Syrah/Shiraz on the other hand almost needs some time to open up, especially Syrah from the Northern Rhone. But it will continue developing over one or two days, and become much more complex than the Merlot.