Choosing between cabernet sauvignon vs Merlot is one of the fun choices you face as a red wine lover. However, if you are unsure about the difference in flavor, taste, and food pairing options, choosing between these wines will be tough. To help you make a choice, let’s start from the beginning. Both of these grapes make red wine, so expect them to be different from a white wine experience.
1) Cabernet Sauvignon vs Merlot: how climate and region play a role
In my wine quest, I’m focusing on the best French wine regions have to offer. However, it is worth noting that these grape varieties are grown around the world. You can find these wines grown in France, California (e.g., Napa Valley), and many other places. However, some places are better than others when bringing merlot grapes and cabernet sauvignon grapes to life.
Merlot grapes can thrive in either a cool climate or a warm climate. Likewise, cabernet sauvignon is made all around the world, even in a cool climate like Canada. Aside from temperature, winemakers have plenty of other significant choices to keep in mind. For example, I happen to love the impact of oak barrels on wine (especially the vanilla flavor that oak adds). However, some wine lovers prefer a flavor profile without oak barrels.
Climate also has an impact on alcohol levels. For example, a French merlot will typically have a lower alcohol level than a merlot made in California. Finding a direct comparison between those regions can be difficult because many winemakers blend different wine varieties.
2) Which is sweeter: Cabernet vs Merlot
Both of these wines are generally made as dry wines, so the differences are relatively subtle. That said, winemakers typically make Merlot with a sweeter flavor profile. In contrast, a glass of cabernet sauvignon will leave you with a drying sensation because it usually has more tannins.
Putting aside the impact of tannins, the sugar level in Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon can be the same. If you are looking for a sweet wine instead of a dry wine, take a closer look at the wine label or look up the wine online.
Generally speaking, dry wine has 1-10 g/l of residual sugar, while sweet wine has a residual sugar level of 35-120 g/l.
Bottom line: the grape variety doesn’t tell you that much about the sweetness level. You need to take a closer look at how the wine is made and the residual sugar level.
3) Cabernet Sauvignon vs Merlot: critical differences in taste
To understand each wine varietal, here are the typical characteristics you should expect in terms of taste.
Wine Grape Variety: Merlot
Typical taste: while much depends on whether or not you have a full-bodied wine, there are some general patterns. In a cooler climate, Merlot usually has red fruit qualities such as strawberry. In contrast, a warm climate Merlot-based wine will tend to have a blackberry flavor.
Wine Grape Variety: Cabernet Sauvignon
Typical taste: in your glass of wine, expect to taste black fruit experience (e.g., black cherry, blackberry, and plum. From an aroma perspective, many people compare wine to tobacco and leather. If the wine is made in a warmer climate like California, expect to have a more fruity taste. Since Cabernet Sauvignon is a relatively tannic wine, it might come across as a tart taste in some cases.
4) Making Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in California and France
While Travel By Glass is focused on French wine, I fully recognize and appreciate great wines including made elsewhere, including California. Let’s take a quick look at how American wine producers approach these grapes
A Key Distinction To Keep In Mind
Before you head out to buy wines from California, Washington State, or the French wine regions, it’s helpful to make one distinction. In Canada and the United States, it is common practice to focus on the wine varietal. In a restaurant, you might ask for a Merlot type of wine, for example. In contrast, French wine is generally defined by terroir (i.e., geography) more than grape variety. This difference extends to wine labels as well. A California bottle of wine is likely to show Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon prominently on the label. In contrast, French wine bottle labels are less likely to display that information because the emphasis is on the producer.
A Cabernet-Based red wine from California has a few tendencies – expect it to be fruit forward (i.e., fruit is the most dominant taste) and have medium to high tannin levels. For many red wine lovers, a California Cabernet Sauvignon is an excellent choice for a sophisticated wine.
The French approach to Cabernet-based red wine is a bit different. Rather than emphasizing a single varietal (i.e., one type of grape), you will find several types of grape in a French wine glass. In particular, Bordeaux is well known for producing outstanding red wine blends. Expect to experience a black currant fruit flavor here. The tannin content of French wine tends to be long lasting as well, though strong tannin is less common in older wines.
In Bordeaux, the gravely soil of the region is critical because Cabernet Sauvignon grows very well in such regions.
5) Why is Merlot hated?
Wine tastes evolve over time, but the simple answer relates to the 2004 movie “Sideways.” In that movie, Miles played by Paul Giamatti (best known today for his fantastic performance in “Billions”), is known for his strong wine opinions, including hating Merlot and loving Pinot Noir. Alas, few people seem to forget how much the movie praises pinot noir.
Here is one of the famous anti-Merlot quotes from Sideways:
Jack : If they want to drink Merlot, we’re drinking Merlot.
Miles Raymond : No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any f*cking Merlot!
In reality, hating Merlot as a wine grape doesn’t make a lot of sense. There are many ways to make Merlot. It is fine to dislike a particular vintage or producer. But an entire grape variety that is made across the world? That doesn’t add up.
If you don’t happen to like Merlot from California, don’t give up! Instead, join me on my wine quest to taste the best wines of France. For example, Merlot is often the dominant grape used in some of the best Bordeaux red wines. In reality, Merlot can be a crowd pleaser that is likely to appeal to a wide variety of people, including your seasoned wine drinker friend.
6) How many countries produce Merlot and cabernet sauvignon?
These types of wine are produced all across the world. For example, you could host a wine party gathering with wines from half a dozen countries and not exhaust the global reach. Here are the critical numbers on each of these wine grapes.
Cabernet Sauvignon: Top 10 Regions and Countries
Thanks to the diligent researchers at Wine Economics, the top 10 countries for the grape were found as follows in 2010
1) France: 54.43 out of every 1000 hectares planted
2) Chile: 40.73 out of every 1000 hectares planted
3) USA: 34.79 out of every 1000 hectares planted
4) Australia: 25.97 out of every 1000 hectares planted
5) Spain: 23.24 out of every 1000 hectares planted
6) China: 22.61 out of every 1000 hectares planted
7) Argentina: 16.37 out of every 1000 hectares planted
8) Italy: 13.72 out of every 1000 hectares planted
9) South Africa: 12.33 out of every 1000 hectares planted
10) Bulgaria: 8.44 out of every 1000 hectares planted
I had heard of wine being produced in China, but I confess that I was surprised to see China appear in the top 10, far ahead of long-established wine regions like Greece and Portugal.
I couldn’t find the same kind of statistical data on the top countries that produce Merlot. However, a report from the International Organisation of Vine and Wine states Merlot grapes are produced in thirty-seven countries as of 2015 with a total production area of 266,000 hectares.
What To Do Next
Now that you know the fundamental distinctions between Cabernet Sauvignon vs Merlot wine varietals, you have a few choices. You might decide to plan your first wine travel adventure and see wineries for yourself!