Merlot vs Cabernet Sauvignon – Comparing the Two Popular Red Wines

Merlot vs Cabernet Sauvignon is a common comparison made in wine journeys. These bold and flavorful red wines couldn’t be more different.

Sorting out your red wines is daunting when you’re starting out. Even more, experienced wine drinkers can get overwhelmed by all the varieties and origins on display.

Merlot is generally favored as both a starter wine and the main squeeze, while Cabernet Sauvignon soars in food pairings and cooking.

We’ll take a look at Merlot vs Cabernet Sauvignon, what makes them distinct, and which one you should try.

The Ancestor of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon

Both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon come from Cabernet Franc. This red grape varietal is widely known as one of the parent grapes for helping birth to so many beloved red wine varieties.

Alongside Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc has also helped craft Carménère.

The Origin of Merlot

origin of merlot

Many of the wine grape varieties we know and love today originated around the 12th century. Through environmental changes or shifting cultural tastes, wine grapes rise and fall.

Historians estimate Merlot’s appearance in the 1700s in France. The Bordeaux region is well-known as the worldwide wine capital, famed to this day for producing incredible vintages.

The Bordeaux red wine blend is widely enjoyed for its subtle balance of multiple grape varieties: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.

Merlot has faced an interesting set of hurdles on its way to becoming the number one red wine in the West. From pop culture references to omnipresent snootiness in wine culture, Merlot has slowly clawed its way to the top.

Today Merlot is widely chosen as a starter wine for its approachable character.

The Origin of Cabernet Sauvignon

origin of cabernet sauvignon

One of the first varieties the average wine drinker thinks about when hearing ‘red wine’ is Cabernet Sauvignon. With a powerful flavor and flexible food pairings, it’s not hard to see why.

While Merlot has more concrete origins, Cabernet Sauvignon remains a mystery for today’s wine aficionados. There are musings among historians that this grape could’ve existed in ancient societies, while other theories suggest this grape has origins somewhere in the 1700s.

Much of the modern research we enjoy on this grape’s mutations cropped up around the 1960s.

Breaking Down Merlot

breaking down merlot

Merlot is a brilliant beginner wine with several traits that makes it accessible to drinkers who don’t like bitter, acidic, or leathery vintages. Seasoned drinkers also lean toward Merlot for its subtle, jammy notes and flexible food pairings.

Here are the qualities you should expect in the average glass of Merlot.

Merlot is Dry, But Not Too Dry

Make no bones about it: Merlot is a dry wine. This term refers to the drying effect that certain wines have on the tongue, caused by a lower sugar count.

Now, Merlot is still not as dry as Cabernet Sauvignon, which we’ll look at more in the next section. This wine grape hovers in a pleasant middle ground between the bone-dry wine grapes and the juicier varietals.

Merlot is Low on Acidity and Bitterness

Are you sensitive to harsh flavors? Merlot’s gentle approach is a fantastic option for beginner wine drinkers and experienced wine drinkers with softer palates.

Merlot generally has low tannins, the chemical responsible for bitter and astringent flavors.

Merlot is Fruit-Forward and Only Slightly Sweet

Ripe plums, cherries, and blackberries. Dark chocolate and rich vanilla. The hearty, fruit-forward flavors of Merlot are addicting, but not so sweet it becomes overpowering.

The sweetness comes more from the fruit flavor rather than a high sugar count. This wine is a solid pick for both wine drinkers with a sweet tooth and drinkers who steer clear of more sugary options (think Riesling or Moscato).

Consider pairing Merlot with:

  • White cheeses
  • Pork
  • Hamburgers
  • Lasagna with red sauce
  • Sausage

Merlot is Incredibly Dark and Aromatic

The sensory qualities of wine don’t end at the flavor. Merlot’s deep violet coloration glimmers like an amethyst stone (and after a few glasses, your teeth will, too!).

Merlot usually comes with vanilla, chocolate, or cloves on the nose. Decant your Merlot for thirty minutes for an even richer experience.

Merlot is a Commonly Blended Grape

Red blends are a fun winemaking technique that blends together all the best traits from individual grapes.

You’ll commonly see Merlot mixed in to soften tart flavors or add an even thicker mouthfeel.

Breaking Down Cabernet Sauvignon

cabernet-sauvignon

The quintessential red wine. Cabernet Sauvignon is the go-to vintage for many wine drinkers for its reliably powerful flavor, though not quite as beginner-friendly as Merlot.

What is special about Cabernet Sauvignon? Let’s take a look.

Cabernet Sauvignon is Tart and a Little Bitter

Due to a higher volume of tannins, Cabernet Sauvignon is often more tart and a touch bitter. These sensations may be harsh on sensitive tongues but can be quite lovely when paired with savory and salty foods.

Cabernet Sauvignon is a Little Dry

Cabernet Sauvignon is a little drier than Merlot, though still not the driest red wine around. Expect a surprisingly full body to tingle your tongue with contrast.

Cabernet is Fruit-Forward and Quite Acidic

Cabernet Sauvignon shares a few flavor notes with Merlot, including black cherry and plum. Where it differs is the lean toward tart and earthy notes, such as bell pepper, black pepper, and tobacco.

Cabernet Sauvignon is Popularly Used in Cooking

Are you a fan of slow roasting pot roast during the winter? How about marinating your steak and chicken? The powerful flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon punch through recipes and leave an astoundingly savory result.

Some of the best foods to pair with your Cabernet Sauvignon are:

  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Roasted vegetables
  • Portobello mushrooms
  • Cheese ravioli

Cabernet Sauvignon Lasts Longer Than Average After Opened

The longevity of red wine depends on the alcohol count, tannins, and acidity. The higher acidity in Cabernet Sauvignon makes it an ideal storage wine.

The common rule of thumb is to wait seven to ten years after the wine’s creation before enjoying it.

Which is Better: Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon?

which is better

This is a trick question! The better wine depends on your unique tastes. While we have recommendations for certain drinkers, you’ll always know your preferences best.

What is the Best Red Wine for a Beginner?

Merlot is often favored as a beginner wine due to its softer flavor notes, reduced bitterness, and lower storage time. Cabernet Sauvignon is preferred by drinkers who like tighter, tarter notes or cooking with red wine.

Of course, you can always try a red blend with both and get the best of all worlds!

How do You Drink a Cabernet Sauvignon?

Want to get the best out of your bottle? Decant your wine for twenty to thirty minutes. This act is best done with a decanter, though you can also use clear glass vases.

Decanting serves two purposes: separating the liquid from sediment and aerating the wine.

What are the Merlot Prices?

You can find a plethora of prices for your next bottle of Merlot. Price range isn’t an indicator of quality, but rather, the commitment of the winery to careful cultivation and processing.

Merlot prices range from as low as $8 to as high as $500. We have a Merlot price guide here to help you get started with today’s leading wineries (as well as lesser-known gems!).

What are the Cabernet Sauvignon Prices?

Like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon comes in a wide range of prices. Unlike Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon hits some of the highest.

You can find Cabernet Sauvignon hovering between $8 to $15 at your average grocery store. Particularly old and limited-edition vintages can reach thousands of dollars.

Full Breakdown of Merlot vs Cabernet Sauvignon

Wine Breakdown Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon
Origin France France
ABV 14% 13.5%
Flavor Notes Plum, black cherry, blackberries, chocolate, cloves Plum, black cherry, black pepper, bell pepper, tobacco
Aroma Vanilla, cloves Licorice, spice, cherry
Mouthfeel Full-bodied, smooth Full-bodied, tart
Pairings Pork, white cheese, burgers, sausage, lasagna with red sauce Beef, lamb, portobello mushrooms, cheese ravioli, roasted vegetables

Merlot Vs Cabernet Sauvignon – Conclusion

Merlot vs Cabernet Sauvignon is a comparison frequently made. Why not? They’re both grape varieties that create some of today’s most beloved red wines.

These two varieties are frequently blended together, but also stand out as individual bottles. They have some similar flavors, such as black cherry and plum, as well as a full-bodied mouthfeel.

Their key differences lie in their tannic and acidity count. Merlot is distinctively milder and less bitter, while Cabernet Sauvignon runs the gamut of tart to spicy.

Eager to learn more about wine? We have guides on White Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio, and much more!