Top 5 Differences Between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

Group of people toasting with glasses of red wine

Whether you’re looking for a special bottle of wine for a gift or adding to an already extensive collection, you aren’t alone in wondering the differences between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Both wines date back to sometime between the 1600s and 1700s and share the same parent grape, Cabernet Franc.

Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon both originated in the Bordeaux region of France — and are still found there today as well as many other wine regions around the world. The two grapes are so similar, that some Merlots from vineyards in cool climates in parts of France, Italy, Chile, and South Africa can even be mistaken for a Cabernet Sauvignon. ‌

In the spectrum of boldness, both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are more robust than a Pinot Noir and less bold than a Shiraz. That makes them two of the most popular red wines around the world, especially in the United States.

‌So, how can a wine enthusiast learn how to easily tell the difference between the two? By learning how to observe subtle differences, you can make an educated and reasoned decision next time you purchase a bottle.‌

1.  History

Both wines are famous in Bordeaux, but the history of the two is split with the Gironde River that cuts through the region. On the left bank, growers came to favor the Cabernet grapes, while the growers on the right bank of the river believed their land was better suited to grow Merlot.‌

This explains, then, how Bordeaux wines differ. Some taste more like Cabernet Sauvignon, while others from vineyards across the river are more reminiscent of a Merlot.  ‌

2.  Taste

While tastes range significantly based on climate, there are some general differences found between most Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot varieties. Merlot tends to be more fruit-forward, with hints of plum and cherry flavors. Cabernet wines, meanwhile, are usually more peppery with black currant hints.‌

If you’re interested in a bolder Merlot, pick a bottle from a warmer climate or a more rugged, hillside vineyard. Cabernet Sauvignon is naturally bolder, thanks to a higher tannin content. But the sun and wind found on the hillside will result in thicker skin on the grape and bolder tannins for Merlot, too.‌

Thanks to the fruitier notes, Merlot is typically considered slightly sweeter than a Cabernet. But again, this can differ due to where the grapes are grown.‌

3.  Pairing Opportunities

Merlots taste great even when they’re still relatively young, so people often choose these bottles to pair with food. It’s great with beef, especially filet mignon, as well as roasted chicken dishes. Merlot is also the go-to pairing with berries, bleu cheese, and mushrooms.‌

In general, most people consider Merlot to be a more “easy drinking” wine.‌

Of course, because the two wines are quite similar, the foods that pair well with one also are enhanced when paired with the other. The difference is that Cabernets — which have a longer finish and are generally more complex — are often quite lovely to drink alone. For heartier dishes like a porterhouse or short ribs, try the dry sensation Cab offers.‌

4.  Reputation

If you want to impress a dinner partner or host of your next party, go with a Cabernet Sauvignon. Compared to a Merlot, these wines can age quite nicely. Over time, the wine will transform from having a highly aggressive tannic taste to a more complex, mellow flavor.‌

If you discover the tannins are still quite overwhelming in your Cabernet, it’s possible to improve the sometimes-powerful taste by decanting the wine for about 30 minutes. ‌

Remember to always remove the bottle from horizontal storage in advance so that it can sit upright for a day before opening and pouring the wine into a decanter. This makes it easier for the sediment to settle, which is especially important for older vintages.‌

Overall, many wine connoisseurs consider Merlot a less respected grape when grown outside of Bordeaux. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its place in a well-rounded collection. Often the underrated reputation of Merlot can make an interesting bottle that much more enjoyable.‌

5.  Expense

It's said there’s no time in life for cheap wine or bad company. Still, it’s worth noting that in general Merlot can be slightly less expensive than a Cabernet Sauvignon. Depending on whether you are looking to purchase an “old world” or “new world” bottle, however, this price difference is not always true.‌

When adding to your collection or curious about a winery, most sommeliers suggest browsing through different bottles. JJ Buckley Fine Wines has extensive online offerings of both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wines in a range of prices. It’s worth exploring different blends and winemakers to refine your palate to the subtle differences between the two styles of wine.‌

Add Both to Your Collection

The most important thing to consider when choosing which wines to add to a collection or open among friends is your own personal preferences. Just because some people prefer Cabernet Sauvignon over Merlot doesn’t mean that it’s any better — especially if you disagree.‌

Those who love wine know the importance of furthering their education about the different varieties of grapes, growing conditions, and regions. This way, they’ll be able to talk intelligently during tastings and better understand when and why certain wines are more enjoyable.‌

A good way to determine which bottle will fit your tastes is to work with an expert who can provide personalized recommendations. Not only does JJ Buckley sell a wide selection of the best wines from around the world, but it also offers free personalized wine services.‌

By scheduling a call with one of the knowledgeable Wine Specialists, you’ll be able to get all the answers to your questions regarding the tasting notes, reviews, and pairings for every bottle you consider. They’ll be able to tailor their suggestions to help you purchase the highest quality wine — whether you decide on a Merlot, a Cabernet Sauvignon, or both!