Zinfandel vs Merlot: Taste, Dry vs Sweet, Awards And Food Pairings

Choosing between Zinfandel vs Merlot is easier once you keep a few simple principles in mind. These two famous red wines share some common ground.

In general, Zinfandel vs Merlot wines have a few points in common. For example, both wines typically taste like red fruits (e.g., raspberry for Merlot and cherry for Zinfandel). The critical difference is that Merlot is made worldwide while Zinfandel is made almost exclusively in the United States. To make your zinfandel or merlot wine decision, start with the difference in taste.

1) Zinfandel vs Merlot: How do they taste?

These two red wines share some common ground in terms of taste.

In general, Merlot wine has several fruit flavors, including Black cherry, raspberry, and plum (with vanilla, clove, and mocha as secondary flavors). The taste of Merlot also changes significantly depending on whether it was grown in a hot climate like California (expect more robust fruit flavors in that case) or a cool climate like (expect more tannins and structure).

Zinfandel wines, in general, taste like cherry plum, cranberry, cherry, plum, and jam. Typical secondary flavors include hints of smoke notes and spicy. Since Zinfandel is almost exclusively grown in the US, there are minor taste variations due to climate differences.

Aside from climate and geography, winemaking decisions also impact the taste of the wine. For example, a wine that is aged in oak barrels will influence the taste of the wine by adding butter, vanilla, and smoke-style flavors to the wine.

2) Zinfandel vs Merlot: Where Are They Made?

Merlot wines are made all around the world. According to Wine-Searcher data, the top five countries for Merlot production are the USA (51%), Italy (15%), France (11%), Chile (6%), and Australia (5%). Historically, Merlot has been one of the most important grapes in the Bordeaux region of France. 

In contrast, Zinfandel is almost exclusively grown in the United States. The US accounts for 99% of global Zinfandel production. Biologically, Zinfandel is considered identical to Primitivo., an Italian wine grape. Since Zinfandel production is almost exclusively American, it may be cheaper to buy in America because relatively few transportation costs are involved. There are small amounts of Zinfandel grown in South Africa and Australia, but you may find them difficult to find.

3) Zinfandel vs Merlot: Which Is Dry? Which Is Sweet?

Zinfandel Wines: Dry Styles

Zinfandel and Merlot wines are made in several styles. A few decades ago, sweet Zinfandel wines were top-rated. Today, winemaking has changed, and you can find quality dry Zinfandel wines (see the examples below). Therefore, the zinfandel or merlot debate is no longer a matter of saying that Merlot is always better in quality. Both wines can be excellent.

Unfortunately, Zinfandel is seen as a low-quality sweet wine by some people. However, this attitude is based on old information. Winemakers have worked at improving their wines for the past several decades so that you can find many examples of high-quality Zinfandel.

Let’s take a look at some examples of high-quality, dry Zinfandel wines to inform your Merlot vs Zinfandel understanding.

  • Dancing Crow Vineyards, Old Stake 1901 Vineyard. This 14.5% dry Zinfandel won a Bronze Award from Decanter for the 2018 vintage. The screw-top wine is a blend of three varieties: 65% Zinfandel, 10% Cinsault, 8% Alicante Bouschet.
  • Private Selection Zinfandel, Robert Mondavi. With a Decanter Silver Award, this dry Zinfandel wine has a 13.5% alcohol level. Unlike the Dancing Crow, this wine emphasizes Zinfandel to a much higher degree. It is 95% Zinfandel and 5% Petite Syrah in the 2018 vintage.
  • Old Vine Zinfandel (Boneshaker). This dry red wine won a Decanter Silver Award for the 2017 vintage. It is striking on two levels because it is 100% Zinfandel and brings a 15% alcohol level.
  • Illumina (Sunrock Vineyards). Produced in the Okanagan Valley of Canada, this dry wine earned a score of 84 from Decanter. Unlike the other wines mentioned above, this 15% alcohol level wine features Zinfandel as a supporting player. The grape composition is 68% Syrah and 32% Zinfandel.
  • Old Vine Zinfandel (Seghesio). This dry Zinfandel wine produced in Sonoma County earned a Bronze award from Decanter for the 2016 vintage. The wine has an exceptional 15.6% alcohol level with a grape composition of 93% Zinfandel and 7% Petite Syrah.

Zinfandel Wines: Sweet Styles

Are you looking to sample sweeter Zinfandel wines? There are still several examples to keep in mind as you learn about Merlot vs Zinfandel wine differences. Here are two affordably priced examples.

  • Tobin James Zinfandel Late Harvest. This California wine has been described as “almost port-like” with spice and plum flavors. Consider drinking it slowly because it has a 17.4% alcohol level.
  • Bodkin The Crown Jewels Red Dessert Wine. Made in Sonoma County, this dessert wine is a blend of Zinfandel and other grapes. The 2014 vintage had a 16.5% alcohol level.

That’s just the start! Merlot wines are made in many different countries, including Bordeaux, a key ingredient in many of France’s best red wines.

Merlot Wines: Dry Or Sweet?

Almost all Merlot wines are dry in style. There are two factors to keep in mind with Merlot as you look at zinfandel or merlot on a menu.

First, Merlot is commonly used in red wine blends. Years ago, I thought wine blends meant low-quality wine. My 2014 trip to Bordeaux completely changed my attitude. Many of Bordeaux’s most famous red wines are made from a blend of multiple wines, including Merlot.

Second, Merlot wines are made around the world in many different ways and climates. A Merlot wine made in Bordeaux and one made in California will tend to be quite different. Those Merlot vs Zinfandel differences made the wine tasting process fun!

4) Zinfandel vs Merlot: Which Wine Is Better?

There are two significant ways to address this question: personal taste and wine awards.

Personal Taste

Your taste preferences are the first and possibly best way to resolve the zinfandel or merlot debate. Assuming you tasted at least half a dozen examples of Merlot and Zinfandel, you will probably have a preference between them. You might like the fruit emphasis of Zinfandel wines, for example. Alternatively, you might fall in love with the legendary Merlot-based red wine blends of Bordeaux. There’s no right or wrong answer to Merlot taste, but it is helpful to know what to expect.

By the way, keep reading this post for food wine pairing suggestions. You might find that your favorite wine is even better when it is paired with the ideal foods.

Zinfandel vs. Merlot: What Wine Awards Tell Us

As a wine beginner, you might not feel confident choosing the Zinfandel vs Merlot debate. Fortunately, there is another way to settle this debate: external recognition. Let’s consult the world of wine awards to see which varietal has earned the most recognition over the past few years

Zinfandel Wine Awards

The data below comes from the Decanter wine awards. Use this data to supplement your Merlot taste.

  • 2020 Awards: 29 awards for Zinfandel wines (24 from California)
  • 2019 Awards: 23 awards for Zinfandel wines (15 from California)
  • 2018 Awards: 19 awards for Zinfandel wines (13 from California)

Curious to try an award-winning Zinfandel made outside of California? Look for Winemaker’s Selection Lenswood Vineyard Zinfandel from Australia (won an 85 score from Australia) or La Brutta Zinfandel-Petite Sirah from Australia (won an 84 score from Decanter). If you want to keep life simple, focus on Zinfandel wines from California.

Merlot Wine Awards

  • 2020 Awards: 1607 awards for Merlot wines (540 from France, 60 from the United States)
  • 2019 Awards: 1467 awards for Merlot wines (512 from France, 38 from the United States)
  • 2018 Awards: 1470 awards for Merlot wines (585 from France, 35 from the United States)

A strict comparison suggests that Merlot is far better than Zinfandel in terms of awards. There is an important caveat to keep in mind. Merlot is produced in far larger quantities and more countries. Merlot wines have a greater chance to win recognition through sheer volume and competition than Zinfandel, which is grown mainly in a single region.

5) Zinfandel vs Merlot: How Do They Compare In Food Pairings?

Since Zinfandel and Merlot are both red wines, they share some common ground in food pairings. To have an enjoyable dinner, keep the following food wine pairings in mind.

Zinfandel Food Pairings

  • Lighter Meats: You can pair Zinfandel with pork, bacon, ham, and veal. For this reason, Zinfandel can be a good Thanksgiving wine.
  • Cheese Pairings: Pair Zinfandel wine with hard cheeses like Cheddar and Trentingrana
  • Vegetarian Pairings: There are quite a few options here included peach, cranberry, roasted tomato, and red peppers.
  • Spices. Zinfandel works well with multiple spices, including coriander, turmeric, curry, ginger, and garlic.

Merlot Food Pairings

You can appreciate merlot taste further when you try these pairings.

  • Meats: Merlot is a classic pairing for multiple meat dishes, including chicken (grilled and roasted), beef (roast beef and filet mignon in particular), turkey, and veal.
  • Cheese: Merlot combines well with brie, gouda, parmesan, and goat cheese.
  • Vegetarian Pairings: grilled mushrooms, tomato sauce paste, vegetable stew, and cranberries.

In addition to these general suggestions, there are a few other principles to keep in mind. For instance, look at the age of the wine. With young wines (i.e., anything three years old or younger), you can generally expect a fruit-forward taste. However, when opening a five or ten years old wine, additional flavors are much more likely. The different flavors will give you different options for food and wine pairing.

Looking For Something To Read With Your Wine?

When you sit down with a great glass of wine, reading a good book is an excellent pairing. If you’re looking for a fantastic real-world wine mystery involving billionaires and Thomas Jefferson, I recommend reading “The Billionaire’s Vinegar” by Benjamin Wallace (read my full review here). Alternatively, check out my list of wine fiction suggestions for a story to transport you to France, Italy, California, and other places in the wine world.

Zinfandel vs Merlot: Taste, Dry vs Sweet, Awards And Food Pairings

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