Merlot vs Pinot Noir vs Cabernet Sauvignon

- June 4, 2022
merlot-vs-pinot-noir-vs-cabernet-sauvignon

These are some of the most well-known red wines globally, so you’re likely familiar with them. Their popularity is well-deserved, as they have a long history and are versatile enough to appeal to practically any wine enthusiast. In this post, we’ll go over the origins of each of these types, the viticulture methods and terroir that surround them, their appearance, tasting notes, and sweetness levels, as well as the best food combinations for each style, their aging potential, and their use in cooking. Let’s begin talking about Merlot vs Pinot Noir vs Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Merlot

Origins

In comparison to other varieties, Merlot does not have a long history, with the first mention found by wine historians dating back to 1784, when a resident of Bordeaux declared that Merlot was one of the greatest wines available at the time. This prompted historians to conclude that this wine existed before the 18th century, although no prior references have been discovered. Merlot was originally considered a “secondary” grape by French vintners, and it was largely used in blends with other wines. Thankfully, they saw its potential, and it is now one of the most popular stand-alone winemaking varietals.

In February 1956, France was devastated by a severe freeze that destroyed many Merlot grapes. French winemakers attempted to replant Merlot vines for the next few years, only to have them later destroyed again by rot. The French government outlawed the cultivation of new Merlot plants in 1970. After the prohibition was abolished in 1975, Merlot wines began to regain popularity.

Viticulture and Terroir

Merlot flourishes in cold soil, and as it buds early, it is vulnerable to frost as well as diseases including rot, downy mildew, and pest infection. Pruning is an important part of determining the quality of the wine produced, and some growers believe it is ideal to prune the vines short. The Merlot grape has a tendency to swiftly overripen once it reaches its initial ripeness level, often in a matter of days. As a result, two schools of thought have emerged on the best time to harvest Merlot. Château Pétrus’ winemakers choose early harvesting to preserve the wine’s freshness and elegance, as well as its aging potential. Others like late harvesting because of the extra fruit body that comes with a little overripeness.

Appearance

Merlot’s hue comes from the use of red-skinned grapes. Wines can be semi-opaque to opaque and rich ruby red when young. It has a brighter tint than Cabernet Sauvignon and a darker color than Pinot Noir. The sparkle of brick and orange tones on the rim is one sign that you’ve got Merlot in the glass. Merlot loses richness and brightness as it ages, turning garnet in color.

Tasting Notes

Merlot is somewhat known as a shapeshifter as it can easily adapt to many climates, taking on the characteristics of both its environment and the winemaking procedures used to make it. Typical Merlot aromas include graphite, herbs, blackberries, black cherries, plums, and cocoa, which are commonly combined with notes of clove, vanilla, and cedar when matured in oak barrels.

Sweetness

Merlot is often produced as a dry wine. The flavor of ripe fruit, such as cherries and plums, may lead you to believe the wine is sweet, but this is not the same as the taste of sweetness due to the sugar content.

Food Pairings

The terroir and winemaking procedures employed in the winemaking process should be considered when pairing a Merlot, as Merlots can differ greatly. A fruity Merlot goes great with white and dark meats, pasta with red sauce, burgers, and pizza. Fuller-bodied, ripe styles, often with higher alcohol content, can be paired with stronger flavors such as beef and lamb, hearty bean dishes, and game meats. Classic, savory styles such as a Merlot from Bordeaux go well with roasted meats, duck, and mushrooms.

Aging Potential

The right Merlot will age well, while the wrong one will swiftly degrade. We don’t recommend aging fruitier Merlots, as their flavors can quickly disappear. Fans of robust Merlots will find that aging them for 3-5 years helps soften the tannins and balance the acidity, as the wine becomes softer and smokey with age.

Cooking

Merlot is a delicious red wine with moderate tannins, ideal for cooking. Merlot is mostly used in slow-cooking stews or tomato sauces. If you have a sweet tooth, you can also use it to flavor sweets.

Pinot Noir

Origins

Thanks to the 2004 film “Sideways,” you may be familiar with the variety, which played a key part in its growing popularity. Still, Pinot Noir has a long history, dating back to before the first century A.D. The Gallic tribes drank a strange wine when the Romans invaded France in 121 B.C. This wine featured distinctive mouthfeel and red fruit and spice characteristics and was made from the wild Pinot Noir grape. The Romans decided to plant vineyards all over the continent, resulting in a wide range of Pinot Noir wines.

Viticulture and Terroir

Because it requires very specialized growth conditions to develop, this variety is infamous for being difficult to cultivate. Burgundy produces the best Pinot Noir wines because of the soil and climate characteristics that allow the variety to flourish. Pinot Noir is also produced in the Champagne region of France, where it is made into sparkling wines. Pinot Noir’s distinctive traits are best expressed in cooler regions, as its acidity is lost in hotter areas. Furthermore, plant yields are low, and they continue to decline as the plant matures. As a result, it is more costly than other grape varieties.

Appearance

Pinot Noir is one of the most “pale” red wine varieties. Pinot Noir has a delicate and transparent cherry tone when young. As it ages, the wine becomes more orange-toned or “brick-like”.

Tasting Notes

You’ll detect earthy, herbal, and spicy aromas when you first taste Pinot Noir. Dark cherry, red currants, and berries are common flavors, as are mushroom and soil overtones. You may detect hints of vanilla, spice, chocolate, tobacco, and oak if the wine has been matured in barrels.

Sweetness

While it may not seem as dry as a Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir is a dry wine by nature. Some of the perceived sweetness in Pinot Noir may also come from its flavors.

Food Pairings

Pinot Noir is a versatile wine that goes well with a variety of foods. Fruitier versions go well with salmon and other fatty seafood, as well as roasted chicken and pasta. With game birds and casseroles, bolder Pinot Noirs are ideal. It’s a fantastic example of the saying “what grows together, goes together,” as it complements the classic French dish, beef bourguignon, beautifully.

Aging Potential

According to the majority of wine experts, Pinot Noir does not age well. Although the wines can develop over time in the bottle, they are rarely good for long-term storage. Because Pinot Noir is already a pricey wine, putting it through the risky process of aging isn’t recommended.

Cooking

You can certainly cook with Pinot Noir if you want to. It’s perfect for stews, and it’s the main ingredient in meals like Beef Bourguignon. However, because of the high cost of wine, you may wish to use different varieties for cooking.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Origins

This is another wine with a short history since a group of UC Davis researchers traced the variety’s origins back to the 17th century, believed to have been a result of an accidental merging of the Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. The variety rose to fame in the 18th century when vintners planted it extensively in the Bordeaux region of France. While it is very popular, it is not commonly used as a straight varietal wine, probably due to its very bold profile. Usually, it is used in blends with Merlot and/or Cabernet Franc. 

Viticulture and Terroir

Unlike Merlot and Pinot Noir, this grape is adaptable to a wide range of soil types, easy to cultivate, and resistant to the majority of grape diseases. It’s also prone to producing a lot of fruit. This is why viticulturists use less powerful rootstocks and prune the vines short. Cabernet Sauvignon grows well in a variety of climates and expresses the terroir of each region. The climate appears to be more crucial than the soil for this particular type. The cultivar develops more herbaceous and green bell pepper characteristics in chilly climates. It also tends to develop notes of cooked blackcurrants in places where the grape is subjected to excessive warmth and over-ripening.

Appearance

The color of Cabernet Sauvignon varies from medium crimson to magenta. This wine is not as dark in color or as opaque as others and retains a slight translucency when young. Its color may vary depending on the varietal(s) used in the blend because it is rarely found as a stand-alone varietal wine.

Tasting Notes

The flavors will differ based on where the grapes are produced and how the wine is made. Cabernet Sauvignon, generally, offers dark fruit flavors of blackcurrant (cassis), black cherry, and blackberry, or notes of green bell pepper, spice, tobacco, wood, and vanilla (from aging in oak barrels).

Sweetness

The majority of Cabernet Sauvignon wines are dry. They have a high tannin concentration and little acidity, resulting in a dry mouth sensation. Next to Merlot, it’s one of the driest red wines available.

Food Pairings

Cabernet Sauvignon has a stronger, bolder flavor, so the food that goes with it should be heartier and richer to cut through the wine. Cabernet Sauvignon pairs with red meat or vegetarian dishes like portobello mushrooms and hard cheeses such as aged cheddar, gorgonzola, or gouda. Avoid serving it with light meals like fish, creamy pasta, or chicken alfredo since the wine’s flavor will overshadow the food.

Aging Potential

Cabernet has a wide range of quality levels and locales, making it highly unpredictable. As a result, not all Cabernets have the same aging potential. Wines with darker hues, stronger acidity, and prominent tannins usually age well for up to 10 years.

Cooking

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most common cooking wines, owing to its widespread availability in supermarkets. It’s an excellent wine for braising meats like ribs since it softens the meat while also adding flavor. High tannin styles, on the other hand, aren’t great for cooking because they can give the meal a dry taste.

Conclusion

There’s a lot to take in when it comes to the variations between Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Despite the fact that they are all red wines from France, they are all remarkably different. We hope that this article has answered any questions you may have had about these types. Please feel free to share your views and opinions with us. Cheers!

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