Pinot Noir vs Merlot: What’s the Difference?

Pinot Noir vs Merlot

Two of the most popular and famous red wines on the market are Pinot Noir and Merlot, with some brands running over $20,000 per bottle. And due to this popularity and fame, wine enthusiasts are quick to ask what the difference is between Pinot Noir and Merlot.

In terms of taste:

Merlot is smooth and more full bodied, with a strong flavor, while Pinot Noir is light and mellow with more focus on tart fruits and acid.

There are more differences between the two wines besides taste, including their texture, what pairs best with both wines, and the origins of the grapes used in them.

The Different Origins of Pinot Noir and Merlot

One of the major differences between Pinot Noir and Merlot is where the grapes used to make them come from. These differences can also explain the differences in flavor and texture between the two wines.

Pinot Noir grapes come from regions with cooler weather, such as Burgundy in France and Oregon in the United States. The grapes themselves have a thin skin and often get burnt in warmer climates. The grape is less tannic than other varieties, so the wine is often made with a focus on reducing exposure to oxygen.

Pinot Noir grapes require a long, cool growing season and prefer low rain fall, conditions that can be difficult to create. Because of this Pinot Noir takes more time and effort to cultivate than other forms. It has a reputation for being fickle in the vineyard, requiring lots of hand work to clear away extra leaves, and protect against rot that the grape is susceptible too.

As a fun fact, Pinot Noir is one of the oldest forms of wine known to man, having been discovered by Roman soldiers in the 1st century during the invasion of Gaul. This means Pinot Noir existed, in some form, before Rome became an empire.

You can read our full overview of Pinot Noir here for more info.

Merlot grapes, as opposed to Pinot Noir, thrive in a milder climate but can exist in colder or warmer regions if properly adapted. This means they are generally easier to cultivate and can be grown in a wider range of climates. The Merlot grape is most famous from the Bordeaux province of France.

Merlot grapes have a thicker skin than Pinot Noir grapes, meaning they are more tannic, but are still considered a moderately tannic grape. Definitely less tannic than a Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon.

Compared to ancient Pinot Noir, Merlot was first cultivated in the 1700s in France, making it a more modern form of wine, relatively speaking. Merlot is grown all over the world, being the 3rd most widely planted red grape on the planet. Stylistically Merlot is split into two camps, the more traditional Bordeaux approach, where the grape is picked earlier to preserve acidity and the early flavors of raspberry and bramble fruits, or the International style, harvested late, with a silky smooth tannin and more blackberry/chocolate flavor profile.

The Flavor Differences between Pinot Noir and Merlot

Coming from vastly different grapes raised in different climates, Pinot Noir and Merlot have different flavors.

Pinot Noir has a lighter body but a stronger, earthier taste with notes of fruit such as blackberries or cherries. The wine is also less tannic than other red wines, which contributes to its lighter body but also to a sweeter flavor. This is offset somewhat by the more acidic qualities of the wine, creating a more complex flavor.

Pinot Noir gets its smooth texture  from the wood tannin it absorbs during barrel aging, resulting in a light velvety mouth feel. Pinot Noir frequently has a lower alcohol content than Merlot, which combined with high acid, and the absorbed wood tannin from the barrel makes an age able wine.

Merlot is in many ways the exact opposite of Pinot Noir in terms of taste, with a fuller body but a softer flavor. Merlot’s fruity flavor is compared more to plums and blueberries, being gentler on the palette with only mild acidity. The full bodied texture of Merlot is helped by the higher tannin levels of the wine.

Merlot is dry, but not more so than other red wines, and this does not detract from the wine’s full, smooth texture. Merlot can have a slightly higher alcohol content depending on the conditions and wine making approach. Merlot can age well, particularly if blended with a more tannic grape like Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Different Appearances and Aromas of Pinot Noir and Merlot

In addition to different flavors and textures, Pinot Noir and Merlot also have different aesthetics compared to one another. Each wine has a unique appearance and scent that can be just as striking as their taste.

Pinot Noir has a faint, pale color, ranging from a light red to a dark Burgundy. As the wine ages it is common for it to be tinted with orange or yellow near the rim. This lighter color comes from the thin skins, since grape skin bleeds color into wine as it ferments. This is what gives red wines their color, as they use more skin in their juice. More and more frequently New World winemakers are doing a process called extended maceration with Pinot Noir, to attempt to get more color from their wine, but this comes with trade off’s as the fruit needs to be de-stemmed in order to avoid the harsh woody tannin found in stems. All of these are wine making options to really dial in what the wine maker is hoping to showcase in the wine.

Pinot Noir has a very fruity, earthy aroma, similar to fresh fruit or cut flowers, although some have compared it to wet leaves. The wine also has a slight tinge of spice in its scent, although this is harder to pick up in the wine’s taste.

The name Merlot is believed to have been derived from the French word merle, which means blackbird, and speaks to both the grapes color, and its sweet sugars that the birds love. The grapes are generally dark blue to purple, and often has a blue hue in the deep red color of the grape.

Merlot has a remarkably sweet scent, similar to sweet fruits like cherries and plums, but with peculiar notes of vanilla and chocolate, despite not being ingredients in the wine. This means a strong Merlot can smell more like desert than a dinner beverage.

These stark differences in the appearance and aroma of both wines are yet another difference between Pinot Noir and Merlot.

Different Food Pairings for Pinot Noir and Merlot

Not only do Pinot Noir and Merlot have different qualities, but both wines pair with different types of food.

The light body and strong flavor of Pinot Noir pairs well with savory dishes, especially those with a gamey flavor such as goose, chicken, or venison. Pinot Noir is acidic and light enough that it can also does well with seafood like salmon, tuna, and sushi rolls, so long as the flavor of the meat doesn’t overpower the wine. If you are looking for cheese recommendations consider flavors like brie and Swiss.

Merlot does well with a wide range of foods, from roasted vegetables to veal to pasta dishes. The key to pairing Merlot is to pick mild dishes whose flavors will not overpower or conflict with the taste and texture of the wine. A mild wine like Merlot also pairs well with mild cheeses like Beaufort and parmesan.

Pinot Noir’s ability to pair with earthy flavors, in contrast to Merlot pairing better with mild foods, is the final point of contrast between both wines.

Conclusion

As two renowned and well-known forms of red wine, there is a question as to what the differences between Pinot Noir and Merlot are.

Pinot Noir is comples, fruity wine with a light body and coloration, marked by a surprisingly earthy aroma that pairs well with umami flavors. Merlot has a mellower flavor, but a fuller body and color, with a sweet yet complex scent that work beautifully with a wide range of foods, as long as they do not overpower the taste of the wine.