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Cabernet Sauvignon vs. Merlot: Differences & Similarities

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are two wines that share many similarities but are also extremely different. For less seasoned wine drinkers, selecting the perfect bottle and making the distinction between similar types can be difficult, but if you understand the subtle differences, you will be able to make the right decision.

Where Each Is Grown

Both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot originated in the Bordeaux region of France in the 15th century; however, the grapes that are used in these two wines thrive in very different conditions.

Cabernet Sauvignon thrives when planted in the gravely soil as was found in the Médoc region along the Left Bank. Gravel-based soil is well drained, yielding to the conditions that this particular type of vine needs. It also has the added benefit of absorbing the heat from the environment and delivering it to the vines, which helps the fruit ripen much more quickly.

Merlot grows much better in the clay and limestone-based soils that are found along the Right Bank in the Gironde estuary region; however, this type of soil holds a much cooler temperature resulting in a delayed ripening.

Today, both wine grapes are grown in a variety of locations. Merlot-based wines are often grown and produced in St. Émilion, Pomerol and Fronsac, and Cabernet-based wines can be found in Médoc and Pessac-Léognan. Both types of grapes are additionally grown extensively in Napa Valley, Sonoma County, the Northeastern United States, and Southern Australia.

Differences in Production

Cabernet Sauvignon comes from a small and thick grape. This is why there is so much tannin in Cabernet, as the tannin is found in the skin itself. During production Cabernet Sauvignon goes through an oak aging process. While not all grapes take to this process, it is perfect for producing a delicious Cabernet. Instead of making the wine too soft, this aging process gets the wine to the perfect level of acidity and bitterness, as well as adding additional flavors of its own.

Like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot is also often aged in oak barrels, or with oak chips. During the production process Merlot grapes must be picked immediately after ripening or they will over-ripen and lose their acidity. Where Cabernet is often made as a stand-alone wine, Merlot grapes are often blended in with others to lessen the tannin, as they have a much fruitier, lighter flavor.

What Blends Are Each Used In?

Not surprisingly, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are often blended together. The fruitiness of the Merlot is used to combat the bitterness of the tannin that is often present in Cabernet wines. In general, Merlot is used to sweeten more bitter wines and Cabernet is used to add a drier flavor to wines that are too sweet.

Differences in Taste

In general Cabernet Sauvignon has a bolder taste, where Merlot is softer; however, there are many bold Merlot wines as well. It all depends on where the grapes are grown.

Climate plays a big part in how these wines taste. For example, wine made from grapes grown in a cooler climate will have a drier, more earthy flavor with a higher presence of tannin, where a wine made from grapes grown in a warmer climate will have a much fruitier flavor with less tannin.

When Pairing, When Would You Choose One Over the Other?

With all their similarities, one big difference comes in pairing Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot with food. The two wines, although made similarly in the same regions, have distinctly different flavors that cater to very different meal types.

When to Choose Cabernet Sauvignon:

Never do so with a delicate meal. Its rich flavor will overpower everything else on the table. Instead, pair a cab with heavier meals such as steak, duck, wild pheasant, buffalo, and other dishes high in protein. Avoid pairing it with certain fish, as the oil doesn’t tame the tannin adequately. If you are looking for a seafood dish, less oily fish such as tuna, swordfish, and shark do pair well, but a lighter red may be a better choice.

When to Choose Merlot:

Because it has a lighter tannin and is sweeter, Merlot can be used in a variety of settings. Merlot pairs well with many different Italian dishes, especially ones featuring a tomato-based sauce. It also does well to highlight the savory flavor found in roasted chicken, mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese.

While these two wines are produced in similar areas and utilize very similar techniques, they have significant differences that everyone should understand when trying to make the perfect selection.

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