Merlot vs Zinfandel: Their Differences & Similarities Compared

Merlot vs Zinfandel

Merlot and Zinfandel are both popular red grapes which are common within the wine community.  There are a number of similarities between these two varieties, to include the thickness of their skins, their fruitiness and levels of tannin.

There are however, a number of key differences between the two – the specific aromas, their varied histories, and other key differences differentiate them as distinct wines.

Complete beginners to wine tasting may find some difficulty in differentiating between the two tastes.  However, more experienced aficionados with a more discerning palate will be able to fully appreciate the numerous subtle differences between these two wines.

Origins of Merlot

Merlot traces its origins to the Bordeaux region of France.  Although its first historical mention in the records occurred in the 1700s, the Merlot probably has a longer history in the region.  Modern researchers believe that the Merlot traces its origins to the Cabernet Franc grape, meaning it is a cousin of Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenere.

It is likely named after a black bird indigenous to the reason, which is probably due to the dark color of the grape.  In the 1800s, the grape started spreading to other parts of the Europe, reaching Italy and Switzerland.

Merlot has steadily grown in popularity across the world, to the point that it is grown all over in locations such as Australia, Italy, Romania, and Chile.  There is a very heavy presence of Merlot in vineyards in Washington State and California.  This global presence has made Merlot the second most popular wine in the world, after Cabernet Sauvignon.

Origins of Zinfadel

Researchers have traced the origins of the Zinfandel wine to Croatia.  Research has suggested that the Zinfadel wine’s ancestors have existed for thousands of years.  From Croatia it spread to Italy, where it became known as Primitivo.  Eventually in the early 1800s, the wine was shipped from Austria to the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, and then made its way to the West Coast, where it is widely grown today.

Zinfadel’s ability to thrive in warm environments meant that it had enormous success within the state of California.  Interestingly, until the mid 20th century, wine experts did not know that Zinfadel had its origins in Croatia, or that the Italian Primitivo was identical to Zinfadel.

Many people even believed that this was a wine made from indigenous American grapes, which would have made it a significant exception within the world of wine, since virtually all wine grapes trace their origins to Europe.  In fact, the difference between New World and Old World wines is more a function of the philosophy of wine making between the two regions – both types of wine are made with European grapes.

American researchers finally confirmed the origins of the grape in the 1970s, after people noticed similarities between the grape in California with the one found in Italy and Croatia.  These findings were fully confirmed in the 1990s with genetic testing.

Zinfadel is grown extensively in California, to the point that it is looked at by many now as an American wine.  It also is still grown in Italy, with a smaller presence in the rest of the world.  Zinfadel is a warm climate grape, which influences the regions of the world in which it is grown.

The Grapes

Merlot grapes are darker colored, medium thickness skinned fruits.  They tend to ripen earlier and are versatile, meaning they can grow in both warm and cool climates.  That being said, they are famous for their ability to grow well in cold environments.  Their earlier ripening does introduce it to various risks, such as frost.

The Zinfadel grape is also a medium thickness skin, like the Merlot, and is a very dark grape.  Also, like Merlot, Zinfandel tends to ripen earlier than many other wines.  Unlike the Merlot, Zinfandel thrives much more in warmer environments.

Furthermore, Zinfandel is famous for its “uneven” ripening, in which the different grapes in a single cluster ripen at different times.  This provides winemakers a conundrum on whether they should allow the bunches to overripen, or whether they should instead pick individual grapes, which is incredibly labor intensive

Taste Similarities.

Both Merlot and Zinfandel are fruit forward red wines.  They are both medium-full bodied, medium in tannin, and are easy to drink.

Differences

Although both wines are on the drier side of the spectrum, Merlot is drier than Zinfandel.  Zinfandel is higher in acidity than Merlot, and also has a higher alcohol content.  Merlot can be as low as 13% in alcohol content, while Zinfandel can be as high as 17% in alcohol content.

Merlot is noted more for having a soft, smooth, sensual texture, while Zinfandel is known for being bold.  And although they are both most commonly made as red wines, Zinfandel is also sold in a Rose variety.  This Rose variety, known as “White Zinfandel”, is lower in alcohol content, sweeter, and lower in price tag.  Although White Zinfandel is more similar to Merlot in some ways (such as having a lower alcohol content), in other ways it is even more distinct from Merlot (such as being even sweeter and being a Rose).

Fruit Notes

Both wines are fruit forward and share some fruit notes.  These include cherry, plum, raspberry, and strawberry.  In addition to these, Merlot has notes of watermelon, chocolate, vanilla, and earthiness.  Zinfandel has additional notes of licorice, black pepper, cinnamon, and berry.

The specific fruit notes that each wine will have will depend on various factors involved in the wine making process, to include its terroir (climate, topography, soil,), how it is stored, etc.  With that in mind, a Merlot from one part of the world may have different notes from one from another part of the world.  Similarly, a Zinfandel can have slightly different notes considering where it comes from and how it was prepared.

All this being said, there are distinct notes which are common between Merlot and Zinfandel, as well as distinct notes which are seen more in one compared to the other.

Food Pairings

Both wines pair well with foods such as veggies, and red meat.  In addition to these, Zinfandel pairs well with lasagna, pizza, curry, desserts, and cheese.  Merlot pairs well with white meat, hard aged cheeses, and many other foods.  Merlot is particularly known for its very flexible food pairing options, making it an ideal wine for those who want a companion for most of the meals they have at home.

In addition to the differences in food pairing between the two wines, food pairings can vary even within each wine variety, depending on the specific characteristics (such as body or tannin) of the individual label. A wine enthusiast who can afford it should buy both wines to broaden the different types of food and wine pairings available.

Conclusion

Merlot and Zinfandel trace their origins to different origins of Europe.  Merlot emerged from the Bordeaux region of France, home to many other great wines such as Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Zinfandel, on the other hand, began its story in Croatia, from where it spread to Italy and California.

These two wines have their differences in several categories, to include dryness, acidity, alcohol content, and specific fruit notes.  Despite these differences, they are remarkably similar in other ways, to include their fruit forwardness, body, and level of tannin.  Both wines are loved by wine enthusiasts worldwide for everything they bring to the table.