For many wine drinkers, selecting the perfect bottle and making the distinction between similar types can be difficult, but if you understand the subtle differences, you will be able to make the right decision.
Where Each is From
Both originated in the Bordeaux region of France in the 15th century; however, the grapes that are used in these two wines thrive in very different conditions.
Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in the gravely soil as is found in the Médoc region along the Left Bank. Gravel-based soil that is well drained, creating conditions that this particular type of vine needs to flurish. It has the added benefit of absorbing the heat from the environment and delivering it to the vines, which helps the fruit ripen much more quickly.
Merlot grows great in the clay and limestone-based soils that are found along the Right Bank in the Gironde estuary region. This type of soil holds a much cooler temperature resulting in a delayed ripening.
Today both wine grapes are grown in a variety of locations. Merlot-based wines are often grown and produced in St. Émilion and Pomerol, and Cabernet-based wines can be found in Médoc and Pessac-Léognan. Both types of grapes are grown extensively in Napa Valley, Sonoma County, the Northeastern United States, South America and Southern Australia.
Differences how they are Produced
Cabernet Sauvignon goes through an oak aging process during production. This process is perfect for producing a delicious wine. Instead of making the wine too soft, this aging process gets the wine to the perfect level of acidity and bitterness, as well as adding additional flavors.
Like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot is also often aged in oak barrels, or with oak chips added to stainless steel barrells. During this process Merlot grapes must be picked immediately after ripening or they will over-ripen and lose their acidity. Where Cabernet is often made as a stand-alone wine, Merlot grapes are often blended in with others to lessen the tannin, as they have a much fruitier, lighter flavor.
What Blends Are Each Used In?
Not surprisingly, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are often blended together. The fruitiness of the Merlot is used to combat the bitterness of the tannin that is often present in Cabernet wines.
Differences in Taste
Cabernet Sauvignon has a bolder taste, where Merlot is softer; however, there are many bold Merlot wines as well. It all depends on where the grapes are grown.
Climate plays a big part in how these two wines taste. For example, wine made from grapes grown in a cooler climate will have a drier, more earthy flavor with a higher presence of tannin, where a wine made from grapes grown in a warmer climate will have a much fruitier flavor with less tannin.
When Pairing, When Would You Choose One Over the Other?
With all their similarities, one big difference comes in pairing Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot with food. The two wines, although made similarly in the same regions, have distinctly different flavors that cater to very different meal types.
When to Choose Cabernet Sauvignon:
Never do so with a delicate meal. Its rich flavor will overpower everything else on the table.
Instead, pair it with heavier meals such as steak, duck, wild pheasant, buffalo, and other dishes high in protein. Avoid pairing it with certain fish, as the oil doesn’t tame the tannin adequately. If you are looking for a seafood dish, less oily fish such as tuna, swordfish, and shark do pair well, but a lighter red may be a better choice.
When to Choose Merlot:
Because it has a lighter tannin and is sweeter, Merlot can be used in a variety of settings. Merlot pairs well with many different Italian dishes, especially ones featuring a tomato-based sauce. It also does well to highlight the savory flavor found in roasted chicken, mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese.
While these two wines are produced in similar areas and utilize very similar techniques, they have significant differences that everyone should understand when trying to make the perfect selection.