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How Do Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot Differ?

Two classic grapes, two distinct tastes

Janice Williams By January 21, 2022
red wine swirling in a glass
Photo illustration by Pix

Ask Keith Spreckels Jr. about his first experience with wine, and he’ll recall tasting Yellow Tail Merlot. Spreckels wasn’t necessarily a fan, though he admits he was a bit too young to be taking sips from his mother’s glass back then. 

Flash forward more than a decade later, and the all-grown-up Spreckels can’t get enough of Merlot. 

“My first experience with Merlot that really mattered and made an impression on me was when I tried Duckhorn’s Merlot. It was the first Merlot that made me realize that it can have some grip and some depth to it,” says Spreckels, now a certified sommelier and chief executive officer of Tasting Room in Kansas City, Missouri. 

Yet while Spreckels loves it, Merlot’s reputation has taken quite the beating over the years. It’s a variety people love to hate. While the 2004 film “Sideways” is often blamed for its poor fortunes, the glut of Merlot grapes and poor quality of the wine throughout the 1990s and early 2000s all but ensured its demise.

Today, many wine lovers prefer Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s also the world’s most planted grape, making up around 5% of the world’s vineyard area. However, there are good reasons to give Merlot another chance, especially as producers like L’Ecole No 41 in Washington state and J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines out of Paso Robles, California continue to receive nods of approval from critics — often scoring 90 points or more for their estate-grown Merlot. 

The U.S.’s number one wine

Known for its thick skin and resistance to the elements, Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in a variety of climates and soils, from the continental climate of Bordeaux to the coastal regions of California and to Chile, Argentina, and Australia.

While its ancestral home is France, the grape is the most planted wine variety in the U.S., at more than 100,000 acres. Napa Valley is particularly famous for it. 

Napa established its international reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon in 1976 when a Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags’ Leap Winery out-performed its French rivals at the now fabled Judgement of Paris tasting. That decade also saw the founding of Opus One, a Napa Valley winery that was a joint venture between Baron Philippe de Rothschild, owner of the Bordeaux First Growth Château Mouton Rothschild, and Napa Valley’s Robert Mondavi. Napa Cabernet’s prestige was enhanced further when critic Robert Parker awarded 100 points to Groth’s 1985 Cabernet Sauvignon. Today, top Napa Valley Cabernets are collectible wines.

Cabernet Sauvignon has also made a name for itself elsewhere in the New World. It’s planted across Chilean wine regions within the Aconcagua, Maipo, Cachapoal, and Colchagua Valleys. And Argentina produces plenty as well, with more than 34,900 acres of vineyards.

“I discovered Cabs from Argentina back in the early 2010s through a bottle of Familia Zuccardi Tito La Consulta. I found the wine was rich and had hearty flavors of dark fruits and mocha. It was a full wine with a strong lingering finish,” says Odila Galer-Noel, founder of PR on Call.

What happened to Merlot

Today, while Merlot is the second most-planted grape in the U.S., much of it is used in blends. There was a time, however, when it was a star in its own right. 

Merlot originates from Bordeaux, the wine region of France where the grape was mostly used in red wine blends. Winemakers loved the way the lush and plummy Merlot gave softness to blends. 

Merlot made its debut in California during the mid-nineteenth century. Initially, it was used for blending as was done in France. However, by the 1990s, California winemakers were producing Merlot as a single varietal wine. 

Drinkers seemed to enjoy the softness of the wine and its ripe fruit characteristics, and they appreciated that Merlot’s tannins were softer than Cabernet’s. Not to mention, Merlot wasn’t hard to grow in California. So winemakers planted a lot of it, and by the 1990s, sales were off the charts. 

And then came its downfall, sparked by over-planting. In the 1980s, there were between 2,000 and 4,000 acres of Merlot vines planted across California. Acreage figures were up to 8,000 in 1991. By the time Y2K rolled around, Merlot vines covered a whopping 50,000 vineyard acres. But there were problems.

“Merlot can suffer from too much heat and too much humidity. It can easily become overripe and flabby. The window for opportunity for picking is narrow,” says Wendy Narby, a longtime Bordeaux resident and wine educator who wrote the book “Bordeaux Bootcamp: The Insider Tasting Guide to Bordeaux Basics.”

She adds, “It ripens early, which is an advantage in a traditional cool climate region like Bordeaux.”

With so much excess, quality suffered and grape prices began to drop. Then came the Sideways effect, inspired by the 2004 film by author and screenwriter Rex Pickett based on Pickett’s novel of the same name. 

Merlot was already losing fans, but within a year of the film’s release, interest in Merlot tanked. Meanwhile, Pinot Noir was starting to surge. A study released in the Journal of Wine Economics in 2009 confirmed that the movie did indeed impact public opinion of Merlot, especially when it came to bottles in the $10 range. 

Yet not every bottle was soft plonk. Top wineries have continued to believe in it — Duckhorn, Chappellet, Happy Canyon, and Pahlmeyer among others — and are noted for their complex Merlot with depth and richness of flavors. Washington state also makes superior single-varietal Merlot, as does the Italian region Friuli.

“There was some correlation to Merlot’s bad rap when ‘Sideways’ came out, but it’s still on shelves. We import an amazing Merlot from Alicante in Spain. People are still producing it everywhere,” says Spreckels.

Similarities and differences

Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are half-siblings. Merlot is the lovechild of Cabernet Franc and a variety called Magdeleine Noire des Charentes, and Cabernet Sauvignon a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.

A medium-bodied wine, Merlot is moderate in acidity and alcohol, and the wine typically features soft tannins. It can express a range of flavors from fruit-forward and plummy to herbaceous.

“It’s a variety that really expresses its place. It thrives here in Bordeaux in the deep clay soils, but also in limestone, which is also found in California, giving deep and powerful fruit and floral aromas,” says Narby.

When grown in cool climates, Cabernet Sauvignon can exude green vegetal characters with notes of bell pepper. In warmer climates, the wine features notes of blackberries and cherries, and may taste more jammy on the palate. Cabernet Sauvignon often shows as a full body wine with blue and black fruit backed by vanilla notes from oak aging. 

“The Cabernet Sauvignon provides the structure, bouquet, and fruit whereas the Merlot provides the roundness,” says Robert Hayes, sommelier and founder of Cru Wine Club in New Orleans.

Nonetheless, both grapes are a vehicle for serendipitous wine-drinking experiences.

4 bottles to try:

bottle of Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot 2018

Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot 2018

“Duckhorn Merlot was a big influence in understanding what a Merlot can be,” says Spreckels. This soft and elegant wine, made in Napa Valley, is made in a classic Bordeaux style. Though Merlot is dominant, this bottle features a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot to create luscious wine with beautiful ripe cherry and black plum aromas and refined tannins. Fleshy on the palate, the wine displays rich fig, blueberry, black currant, and licorice flavors that last throughout the long, smooth finish.

bottle of L'Ecole No 41 Estate Walla Walla Valley Merlot 2017

L'Ecole No 41 Estate Walla Walla Valley Merlot 2017

Since 1983, L’Ecole No 41 has produced highly acclaimed wines in the heart of Washington state’s Walla Walla Valley. Blended with a touch of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, this structured Merlot-based wine exudes complex aromas of black fruit, tobacco leaf, and violet, while the palate is cloaked with flavors of black cherry, peppercorn, and pencil shavings. The finish is long and quite intense.

bottle of DAOU Vineyards Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

DAOU Vineyards Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

Made by brothers Georges and Daniel Daou, this wine hails from California’s Paso Robles region. Full-bodied and fresh, the wine is full of crème de cassis, black cherry, blackberry, and tobacco nuances, while mineral and earthy notes linger in the background. “I love its depth, complexity, and the elegance it delivers with every sip!” says Galer-Noel.

bottle of Frank Family Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Frank Family Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

“I’ve been enjoying Frank Family wines. Their Reserve and Napa Valley bottles are some of my go-to’s for Cabernet Sauvignon,” says Hayes. A medium to full body wine, this Cabernet Sauvignon packs a powerful punch of blue and black fruit. Candied fruit nuances and hints of tobacco and sandalwood give all the ripe fruit some edge while the finish is elegant and long.