The Differences Between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon



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Merlot and Cabernet, they’re the two most popular red wines in America, but many people don’t know what makes each of them different and unique, or why you might prefer one to the other, so we’re here to help.

Sure both of these wines are great with food, especially meat, but each has its own set of characteristics, and it’s these differences that actually make the wines perfect for blending together, as is done when making Bordeaux, because when combined their individual traits support one another in a really delicious way.

Both Merlot and Cabernet were born in Bordeaux, France and they quickly came to dominate the famous wine region, though depending on what side of the Gironde river you live on, you’re more likely to grow more Cabernet or more Merlot. Here’s an oversimplification of how it all started: When the grapes first began to be grown, people on the left bank of the river felt their land was better suited for growing Cabernet, so it became the dominant grape in their crop. That then translated into Cabernet becoming the dominant grape in their Bordeaux blends, and thus resulted in the creation of “left bank” Bordeaux. The vintners living on the right bank felt their land was better suited for Merlot, so that’s the grape they grew more of, and made dominant when they made Bordeaux, thus creating “right bank” Bordeaux. So, if you find you’re more a fan of Cabernet or Merlot, just ask your wine shop for their left or right bank Bordeauxs, respectively.

There are reasons to love both Merlot and Cabernet, but ask a winemaker in Bordeaux and they will clearly prefer one to the other, usually depending on where they grow their wine!

Merlot, also known as “the little blackbird,” is the more soft and supple of the two grapes. It’s often described as juicy with flavors of chocolate and cherry, and we find it absolutely delicious alongside a cheeseburger or steak frites. Merlot is considered more of a crowd pleasing or “easy drinking” wine because of these characteristics, and in a blend where it’s the dominant grape, it’s soft fruit flavors cause the wine to taste great at a much younger age, which is a reason winemakers love it.

Cabernet Sauvignon on the other hand is the older and more aggressive sibling. The grape is much more tannic, meaning it will give your mouth that drying sensation, and it’s often said to have a strong “backbone” which is just another way of saying it’s hearty and powerful, capable of standing up to rich dishes such as a porterhouse or braised short ribs. Cabernet is a grape that is extremely age-worthy and often winemakers will say wines made using the grape need more time to age in the bottle before being opened because when young the wine’s tannins can be very aggressive. Another way to soften the flavors if the tannins are too strong is by decanting the wine for about thirty minutes, letting oxygen mellow everything out.

No one grape is better than the other, they’re just different, but it’s what makes them unique that also makes them absolutely delicious, and extremely popular.

Header Image via riekephotos / Shutterstock.com

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