The two most popular Bordeaux wines in the world are Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, so it may seem natural that the two wines are often blended together, but this is not the only reason.
Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are traditionally blended together because blending balances the traits of both wines and creates a better final product.
This is because the different qualities of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon complement each other quite nicely so blending the two wines creates a more robust drink. This article will discuss the differences between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, why they work so well together, and what some blended red wines are called.
What is Wine Blending?
Before discussing why Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are blended one needs to understand the concept of blending in wine. Blending is not just mixing two completed wines together in one bottle, it is can be an involved process beginning with fermentation and continuing through to bottling.
The vast majority of blending does happen after primary fermentation. If the wine maker chooses to ferment the grapes together in the same vessel, this is called co-fermentation. Co-fermentation is famous in a few wines like the viognier syrah blend from the Cote Rotie region of France. This method is not as popular as it is less predictable in determining final outcomes. Much more common is that the wines to be blended will finish fermentation, tasted by the winemaker (or winemaking panel at bigger wineries) and then blended. This blended product will often be aged together to increase cohesion in the wine but often times, will be done in a blending tank, just prior to bottling.
Most wines on the market today are not made purely with one grape or another. In order to create a more balanced and robust drink they often have notes of other grapes amixed in with them. If a wine is marked as a blend that means the various grapes used to make it are more evenly balanced rather than just being a splash of flavor.
What is Merlot?
To understand why Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon work so well together it is important to understand the origins and qualities of both wines. Merlot was first planted in the Bordeaux region of France in the 15th century and has been a staple of the region ever since. Merlot grows best in soil heavy with limestone and clay, as well as colder environments.
Merlot grapes are picked immediately after ripening to maintain their acidity. Merlot has medium tannin, due to a thinner skin, although the skin is dark, resulting in a deeply colored, lighter bodied red wine.
While climate does play a role in how Merlot tastes, it generally has a fruity flavor with spices ranging from cocoa to vanilla. This flavor is strong and bold while the body of Merlot is actually somewhat light and airy, which is unique for a red wine but not unwelcome. Because of this strong taste yet light body, Merlot is commonly blended with other wines.
Understanding the qualities and production of Merlot can help in understanding why it is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.
What is Cabernet Sauvignon?
Cabernet Sauvignon, like Merlot, originates from the Bordeaux region of France around the 15th century, meaning that both wines came into existence around the same time and place. This helps explain why they are commonly blended, but this is not the only reason for their association.
As opposed to Merlot grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon vines grow best in gravely soil, which drains water away easier to keep the plants hydrated without drowning them. Cabernet Sauvignon grapes also grow better in warm conditions where they ripen fully and avoid getting a vegetal flavor that can develop from pyrazine, a compound that is common in Cabernet Sauvignon.
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are small but with a remarkably thick skin, giving them a high amount of tannins. This is compounded by the oak aging barrels commonly used for this form of wine, which gives it a nice balance between bitterness and a smooth, full bodied structure.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a very dry wine with an almost spicy flavor, with sommeliers reporting notes of peppers and tobacco in the otherwise fruity taste of the wine. Combined with the high alcohol and tannin content of the wine, this makes Cabernet Sauvignon a strong flavor.
Being able to compare and contrast Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot will help to explain why the two wines work so well together when blended.
Why are they Blended?
Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are similar and different in many ways, sharing an oak-aging process and high tannin count while Merlot is more flavorful and Cabernet Sauvignon is more structured. These point of comparison and contrast pair well together when blending wines, which is why the two are so often blended.
Merlot provides its strong yet pleasant flavor of dark fruit and sweet spices, as well as bright acidity. Merlot also provides a wetter, juicier quality to the wine that helps offset some of the drying effects of the tannins in the Cabernet.
Cabernet Sauvignon, in contrast, provides more structure and balance to the wine by providing more tannin than Merlot, which adds to the full body and bold flavor of the wine. Cabernet Sauvignon also improves the flavor of the wine by bringing some dark, fruity flavors and spice to the mix.
Since blended wines are often matured after blending, the oak barrels used to make the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blend also contribute to the flavor. European oak barrels create spicier notes like smoke and tobacco while American oak barrels create sweeter notes of vanilla and cocoa.
The winning combination of Merlot’s flavor with Cabernet Sauvignon’s structure and spice is why the two wines are blended together.
What are these Blends Called?
If you are looking for a Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blend then there are a few labels to watch out for. This wine is most commonly referred to as the Bordeaux Blend, as both wines are popular in the Bordeaux region of France. If you are in France and looking for this particular blend look for a bottle labeled Bordeaux.
In California the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blend is known as Meritage, as long as it is approved by the Meritage Alliance. The Meritage Alliance is an American vintner’s organization dedicated to the growth and development of Bordeaux-style wines in America, meaning that the Meritage blend is the closest you will get in the states to a genuine Bordeaux Blend.
If the explanation of why Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are blended has interested you, consider looking for one of these fine bottles.
Being two of the most popular grapes in the world it may not come as a surprise that Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are often blended together.
Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are blended together because the flavor and body of Merlot balance nicely with the structure and boldness of Cabernet Sauvignon. By blending the two wines together, the resulting mix is often greater than the sum of its already famous parts.
If you are interested in a Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon mix, look for bottles such as Bordeaux Blend or Meritage.