Merlot and Malbec are popular red wines that offer some similar characteristics worth noting. These two reds are so similar that it takes a highly skilled sommelier to describe how they differ.
Different complexities and nuances set these dry wines apart. Once you understand the differences between Merlot vs Malbec red wine, you’ll never mistake them for the same wine again.
Merlot or Malbec
It is challenging to distinguish between Merlot vs. Malbec because both are dry red wines and have dominant fruit flavors with notes of plum and cherry, making it hard to separate them. Plus, winemakers worldwide use them in many red wine blends.
Merlot predominately grows in the Old World wine regions of Europe and California, while Malbec originated in France. Today, Argentina grows 70 percent of the wine grapes.
However, Malbec has a slightly sweeter quality than Merlot. Merlot is red with a slight cherry color along the glass rim, and Malbec is dark purple with a beautiful magenta color along the glass edge.
The red wines are bold and rich, with Malbec being somewhat heavier. Most wine drinkers call Malbec a full-bodied wine, whereas Merlot is a medium-bodied wine.
Malbec has a pleasant smoky finish, lasting for a long finish. Merlot is smoother with a silky palate that has a long finish but is not as lasting as sipping a Malbec.
Some believe that Merlot is more beginner-friendly and approachable than Malbec since it has robust flavors and a complexity that is too overwhelming for a beginner’s palate.
Merlot Vs Malbec – How are They Made?
Cultivating Merlot grapes from the vineyards into bottles takes skilled growers and winemakers. The grapes need a lot of attention and energy from the growers, but it’s worth it in the end.
Buds sprout earlier than other wine grapes, causing them prone to frost. The grapevines are susceptible to Botrytis bunch rot, decaying of the leaves. Many molds and insects may also infect the vine and ruin the crop.
The Merlot grapevines thrive in well-drained and cool soil, with a precise pruning method to produce the anticipated result. In fact, the Merlot grapes ripen fast, so the growers carefully watch the harvest to pick them at the right time.
The winemaker determines if the Merlot will be a sweeter or drier wine before the fermentation stage of the process. Then, some will ferment or age the wine in oak barrels.
In either case, oak delivers a richer flavored Merlot, including smokier notes of wood, cocoa, and vanilla.
Malbec grapevines need more heat than Merlot to ripen fully. In warm conditions, the grape ripens midway during the growing season.
Since Malbec is so sensitive to its growing environment, the ripeness stage substantially influences the wine’s structure.
Malbec, like Merlot, is vulnerable to early frost, even though it ripens later. The grape can experience coulure and downy mildew. Coulure is the failure of grapes to mature after flowering because of adverse weather. Downy mildew creates yellowing of the leaves and affects the fruit, causing a considerable loss.
If all goes well, the yield will be high, producing the prominent and darkest tannins from the limestone soil similar to France.
Usually, the winemakers age the wine in oak to enrich the structure of the wine and its aging potential. The method gives Malbec a noticeable chocolate character.
What are They Made of?
Eventually, Merlot spread worldwide. So, you can easily say it’s an Old World wine but now grows in New World regions such as California, Washington, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Australia, and beyond.
Merlot wine is an offspring of Cabernet Franc and cousins Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. In 2000, researchers uncovered another parent, Magdeleine, an obscure variety discovered in Brittany in northern France in an abandoned vineyard. Magdeleine’s early ripening qualities seemed to pass onto Merlot.
The Merlot grapes have red skin, though some say the skin looks blue and less blue-black. According to Wine Searcher, the most searched wine on their database is Petrus, made from Merlot of Pomerol.
An inky black-blue grape, Malbec, is a variety that originated in Cahors of South West France. The grapevine grows very well in Argentina, placing the country into the limelight as a wine-producing nation.
In low altitudes, the Malbec skin becomes thinner with fruit supple and soft, blending well with roses and other light summer red wines.
The higher the altitude, the thicker the skin and the richer the flavor concentration. Here, the wine becomes more intense, aromatic, and vibrant in color.
How are They Similar?
The DNA in Malbec and Merlot connect them like close relatives, making them very similar. These red wines are sweet and dry and have medium acidity. The tasting notes are fruit, with Merlot having chocolate, vanilla, and bay leaf, not Malbec.
Though they have fruit tastes, the fruit differs, with Merlot having cherry and Malbec having black cherry. They also have plum with Malbec continuing with pomegranate, raspberry, blackberry, blueberry, and raisin.
Price, Size, Color, Alcohol Percentage Comparison
Malbec Vs Merlot
- Malbec and Merlot originated in France, though Malbec grows more in Argentina than anywhere today.
- Both wines are relatively popular, with Merlot growing in more regions worldwide.
- Merlot grapes thrive in clay, sand and silt, while Malbec grows well in limestone soil.
- Malbec can express the region where it grows, differing from Argentina and California. Merlot flavors can vary based on the area it grows.
- Growers harvest Merlot grapes early to mid-September, after the Chardonnay. Vineyards in Argentina and France also harvest Malbec early, though, in Napa Valley, harvest begins in late August and continues through November for all grapes.
- Merlot is a dry, medium-bodied, red fruit with easy tannins and a pleasantly soft finish. Malbec is full-bodied with medium-high tannins.
- Both have fruit-tasting notes. With Merlot, there is also chocolate, bay leaf, and vanilla.
- Winemakers age both wines in oak, creating more depth of flavor.
- Malbec and Merlot have medium acidity levels.
- It’s best to enjoy Merlot within three to five years, though some can age beyond 20. The Malbec is five to ten years.
- According to Wine Searcher, the bottle price of a Malbec ranges from $4.00 to $472.00, while Merlot ranges from $4.00 to $6000.00.
- The ABV range of Merlot is usually 13 to 14.5 percent, whereas Malbec is around 13 to 15 percent.
- Malbec is a medium red wine with medium tannins, and Merlot is a medium red wine with low tannins.
Both wines originate from France with similar DNA, so their similarities are easy to understand, with fruit notes and depth of flavor. Worldwide, wine drinkers enjoy them, with both wines playing a role in blending with other reds.
Like most reds, they taste best when consumed within five to ten years. Their acidity levels differ, with Malbec being higher than Merlot.
Merlot is more prevalent, while Malbec has its followers, especially in Argentina. Both red wines can give growers a hard time.
How to Drink Merlot Vs Malbec
Merlot is best when served between 60° to 65° Fahrenheit, while Malbec tastes best when served between 60° to 68° Fahrenheit. Some agree that you may enjoy Malbec if you also enjoy Merlot. For classic pairings, white meat, like roasted turkey or chicken, creates a delicious thanks to the light-bodied and fruity wine.
Merlot and Malbec pair well with roasted meats like beef and lamb, or you can put some burgers on the grill, sip, and enjoy. The red wines also go well with Italian-style meals, such as meatballs, pizza, and lasagna.
Because Malbec is a heavier wine, you may pair it with overpowering foods like ribs and beef brisket.
Barbera is a native Italian grape that some consider comparable to Merlot. Barbera has a deep, dark color, but it still has low tannins. The red wine has high acidity, unlike Merlot, but it’s juicy and refreshing, with a much better price range.
Cabernet Franc is an excellent alternative to Merlot since the grape descended from the Cab, a medium-bodied wine.
The similarities continue with earthy flavors and stop with green or roasted red peppers, while some have a delicate balance of savory herbs and red fruits. Still, you’ll likely enjoy the wine from Loire Valley, France.
Syrah is an ideal choice because red wine shares several fruit flavor characteristics. Each is native to France and has found homes away from their original homes.
Syrah quickly became popular in Australia, where the Australians call it Shiraz. Malbec became super popular in Argentina. Syrah has black pepper, olive, smoke, and spice notes and makes a great single variety wine or blends with other red grapes.
Bonarda is a good alternative because of the fresh and fruity characteristics of the New World style of Malbec. Also called Douce Noir, red wine is Argentina’s second most popular wine. You’ll smell violets with a Chinese five-space palate, though Bonarda shares notes with Malbec, such as black cherry, plum, and blueberry.
It even has fewer tannins than Malbec while being juicier. Bonarda rarely ferments in oak, but when it does, you’ll reminisce sweet notes, figs, and chocolate.
Which came first, Merlot or Malbec?
In France, during the 1700s, the cultivation of Merlot began with written notes by a Bordeaux official in 1784. Malbec originated in Cahors during the Middle Ages, where it thrived.
The Wine Master reports the first records dating back to the 16th century with the name Auxerrois, and Monsieur Malbeck planted the grapes in Bordeaux around the 1780s, hence the new name Malbec.
Which is Stronger, Merlot or Malbec?
Merlot ranges between 13 and 14.5 percent alcohol. However, Malbec is slightly higher with 15 to 15 percent.
Which is Most Popular, Merlot or Malbec?
Both wines are popular varietals that are added to many blends, but Merlot is the second most planted grapevine in the world.