Pinot Noir vs Merlot: Notable Differences, Flavors and Food Pairings

Pinot Noir vs Merlot

Are you deciding between Pinot Noir vs Merlot at the wine shop? Find out the difference between merlot and pinot noir with this guide so that you can enjoy wine further at a restaurant or a wine tasting at home.

Pinot Noir vs Merlot: What Are The Key Differences?

Choosing between Merlot wine and Pinot Noir is helpful to know the critical differences between these grape varieties.

  • Notable Difference In Body. Generally speaking, Pinot Noir has a lighter body than Merlot. This difference is essential to keep in mind when you are considering food pairings. Merlot is sometimes described as a full-bodied red wine. Merlot can also be made in an organic style – find out more in the organic merlot wine guide..
  • Tannin Levels. Usually, both of these red wines are low in tannins. That’s important if you like to focus on the fruity flavors in wines. Keep in mind that some Pinot Noir, like the fantastic wines of Burgundy, tend to have a much higher level of tannins. If tannin content bothers you, switch to white wines when you’re at dinner parties.
  • Wine Blends. If you are a fan of Bordeaux red wines, you will probably encounter Merlot in a blend. In contrast, Pinot Noir wine blends are less common.
  • Production. Merlot is the second most planted red grape variety globally (i.e., Cabernet Sauvignon is number 1, so we ) as of 20210. In contrast, Pinot Noir is the 10thmost popular wine grape planted in the world. As a result, there is a wide range of Merlot wines.
  • Dry Wine. Both Merlot and Pinot Noir are usually made in a dry style, so dryness is not notable between the wines. That said, you can find sweeter wine made from these versatile grapes if you look hard enough.

Pinot Noir vs Merlot: Flavor Comparison

While the flavor profiles of these red wines vary depending on geography and winemaker choices, there are a few general points we can make.

Pinot Noir

Keep these points in mind when you look for a bottle of wine at the wine shop or a restaurant wine list. If you seriously get into wine, you can easily find an expensive bottle over $1000.

  • Fruity Flavors. Pinot Noir usually tastes like cherry and raspberry.
  • Secondary Flavors. This versatile wine also has other tastes like mushroom and forest floor in some cases.

Merlot Wine

American wine drinkers were negative about Merlot grapes for a while due to the movie “Sideways,” starring Paul Giamatti. In reality, the Merlot taste profile is terrific! Some wine drinkers do not like that Merlot has a crowd pleaser quality. Regardless of whether you buy an expensive bottle or not, the Merlot flavor tends to have the following qualities.

Tip: If you liked Sideways and want to discover more wine movies, check out Best Wine Movies On Netflix.

  • Fruity Flavors. The Merlot taste includes dark fruit include dark plums, blackberry, black cherry (i.e., dark cherry), and raspberry.
  • Secondary Flavors. In addition, the Merlot taste profile includes vanilla and mocha.

Pinot Noir vs Merlot: Alcohol By Volume

White wine drinkers sometimes avoid red wines because red wines tend to have a higher level of alcohol than white wines. Generally, white wines have lower levels of alcohol vs red wines though there are exceptions. Part of understanding the difference between merlot and pinot noir lies in understanding the differences in alcohol content. Before you open a bottle, take note of the alcohol level.

Pinot Noir Alcohol Levels. Generally speaking, Pinot Noir has 12-15% alcohol by volume.

Merlot Alcohol Levels. Merlot wines usually have a 13-14% alcohol by volume.

If you prefer low alcohol wines, Pinot Noir tends to have a lower alcohol by volume quality. In addition, it is helpful to consider whether the wine was made in a cool climate like the Pacific Northwest or Canada.

Pinot Noir vs Merlot: Serving Temperature

Wine drinkers sometimes obsess about serving temperature. However, serving temperature does not create a quality wine. Spending a few minutes at the wine shop asking for recommendations is well worth the effort.

  • Merlot Serving Temperature. At a formal dinner, the best way to experience Merlot flavor is to serve it between 60-65 F (15-18 Celsius). Putting the wine in the refrigerator for 15 minutes is all you need to do to get the best merlot wine temperature (maybe a bit longer on a hot day.
  • Pinot Noir Serving Temperature. This red wine can be cooled further than Merlot at your formal dinner. Serve Pinot Noir, especially an expensive wine from Burgundy, between 55-60 F (12-15 Celsius).

Food Pairings For Merlot Vs Pinot Noir

An exciting wine pairing can elevate average wines into a memorable experience. Use the following tips as a starting point. To take your wine tasting to extraordinary, read “Big Macs & Burgundy” (check out my full review of Big Macs & Burgundy here).

Pinot Noir Wine Food Pairings

  • Vegetarian Pairings. Several choices work well, like peas, mushrooms, and dishes with truffles.
  • Meats. There are a wide variety of options, including beef stew. Chicken and duck are also good choices.
  • Fish. Salmon is a good pick for Pinot Noir.
  • Cheese. At your next cheese night, Pinot Noir can go well with several kinds of cheese.  A wide range of cheeses works with Pinot Noir, including blue cheese, Comté (a French cheese), and aged cheeses.
  • Spicy Foods. Pinot Noir, as a medium-bodied red wine, is a classic choice to go with spicy foods.

Merlot Wine Food Pairings

Merlot is often considered to be an accessible wine because they work with so many foods. Deepen your enjoyment of the Merlot flavor in your next glass.

  • Vegetarian Pairings. Bean dishes can work. Merlot isn’t the best pairing for vegetarian meals.
  • Meats. Merlot is the perfect partner for your favorite beef dishes. Grilled chicken is one option. Beef dishes like burgers and spaghetti with meatballs also work. You can also pair Blended Merlots with roast beef, grilled chops, and roast duck.
  • Fish. Blackened fish can work well. You might also try a fish stew with your glass of Merlot.
  • Cheese. Cheese lovers, rejoice! There are several good options like pasta dishes like macaroni cheese and medium-hard cheeses. Avoid intensely flavored cheeses.

What Is The Average Price?

The average price you see for Merlot wine varietal and Pinot Noir depends on your region. For example, if you live in a wine region like Oregon or Ontario, you will find plentiful Pinot Noir at a relatively low average price. In contrast, Merlot prices will be higher if those grape varieties are not grown locally. Keep these points in when you seek out a bottle that fits in your price range.

That all said, let’s take a look at Merlot prices at the wine shop so you can know what to expect.

  • American Pinot Noir starts at approximately $10 per bottle. For wine drinkers aiming to impress at a formal dinner, several Pinot Noirs sell for more than $1000. At the time of this writing, has 2504 bottles of Pinot Noir available.
  • Wine Library. With over 100 Merlot bottles, Wine Library has a selection of Merlot under $30. The wine shop also has plenty of wines selling for more than $100. For example, the 2018 Chateau Pavie from France has a sale price of $358.

To finish the comparison, let’s look at the average price for Pinot Noir wine at two online wine shops.

  • Entry-level Merlot prices start at $10 and go above $1000. Fortunately, many good options, including wines with good scores, are available for less than $50.
  • Wine Library. The online wine shop has 140 bottles of Pinot Nori available. You can find entry-level wines for less than $20. In addition, you can also find well-scored wines for under $150. 

How does climate influence Pinot Noir and Merlot?

The average temperature and weather in warmer climates change what your taste buds experience in the wine. The next step is to understand how climate understands the difference between merlot and pinot noir.

Cooler Climate Merlot

Look to the northern regions for cool-climate Merlot, such as Oregon, Washington (e.g., Columbia Valley), and Canada.


Pinot Noir. American Pinot Noirs from Washington and Pinot Noir is made in a cooler climate style. In Europe, you can find cooler climate Pinot Noir is made in Burgundy and the Champagne wine region.

Warmer Climates.

The popularity of California wine means that warmer climates have dominated American taste. If you want to experience other examples of warm climate Merlot, seek out Australian bottles.

Merlot. In California, look for Merlots made in the Paso Robles and Napa Valley areas.

Pinot Noir. Look for a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir or a Pinot Noir Napa Valley on the wine label at the wine shop.

Prefer White Wines Instead?

Some people simply prefer the lighter style of white wines. If that’s you, learn more by reading about the top 8 white wine grapes.

This post was updated on June 21, 2022.

Pinot Noir vs Merlot: Notable Differences, Flavors and Food Pairings
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