Merlot vs Pinot Noir – The Most Important Differences

 wines comparison

Are you trying to decide whether to have a Merlot vs Pinot Noir tonight?

When it comes to red wine, two grape varieties that are sure to trigger a debate among wine connoisseurs are Merlot and Pinot Noir.

In this article, we will explain the difference between Merlot and Pinot Noir and discover why they continue to captivate the hearts and palates of wine enthusiasts around the world.

Comparing

Merlot vs Pinot Noir

While they share some similarities, such as their rich and complex flavors, they also possess distinct characteristics that set them apart.

1. Region of Origin

vineyards

Merlot and Pinot Noir are two of the most planted grapes in France, where they actually originate from.

The Merlot grape is native to the region of Bordeaux, and along with Cabernet Sauvignon, it is the most important grape grown there. (1)

French wine

To produce a red Bordeaux, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are always blended with other grape varieties such as Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Malbec, and sometimes Carménère.

Burgundy is considered to be the home of the Pinot Noir grape, which is the main grape variety used in the production of red Burgundy wines. Cote d’Or is one of the most famous regions for growing Pinot Noir in Burgundy, producing some of the finest wines in the world.

2. Terroir

Conditions to grow grapes

Merlot thrives well in almost every region around the world, with the most popular being France, Italy, California, Chile, and Australia.

Merlot grapes thrive in almost all kinds of soil types, however, they prefer well-drained soils, rich in clay and limestone. It grows very well in warm and cool climates.

On the other hand, Pinot Noir grapes are much pickier about the terroir. The ideal conditions for growing this grape are a cool climate with a decent amount of sunshine, and thin rocky soils.

Burgundy and Oregon have the perfect conditions for growing Pinot Noir, but despite that Pinot Noir is grown in many other regions around the world, such as France, Italy, Germany, California, New Zealand, Australia, and Chile.

3. Taste Profile

Merlot

On the wine scale, Merlot sits somewhere in the middle, as a medium-bodied red wine, with smooth tannins, and low and balanced acidity.

Cool climate-produced Merlot wines usually tend to be more earthy, with expressed flavors of plum, blackberries, cherries, and sometimes tobacco and chocolate when barrel aged.

Warm climate Merlot is generally higher in alcohol content, and predominant flavors of ripe plum, black raspberry, cherry, and red currant.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir wine is at the bottom of the wine scale, as one of the lightest wines. Low in tannin content, Pinot Noir is well known for its food-friendly acidity.

Just as with any other wine, Pinot Noir taste profile is determined by the region where it comes from.
Cool climate Pinot Noir tends to be more earthy and floral, with flavors of cherries, mushrooms, and plums.

Warm climate Pinot Noir is a fruity red wine, with expressed notes of sweet cherries, raspberries, and wild strawberries.

4. Sweetness levels

Sugar in wine

The difference between Merlot and Pinot Noir sweetness is the amount of residual sugar left in the wines after fermentation.

Merlot and Pinot Noir are dry red wines with a sugar content of 1-3 %, depending on the region where they come from, and the style of the winemaker.

Both Pinot Noir and Merlot, when grown in a cooler climate taste drier and earthier, while their warmer climate counterparts taste fruitier and sweeter.

5. Food Pairings

Meat with sauce

When it comes to choosing a wine to go with a meal, Merlot is a medium to full-bodied red wine that will make a great companion to hearty meats such as beef, pork, lamb, and game, as well as strong cheeses such as gorgonzola or cheddar. Learn more about Merlot pairings.

Pinot Noir is light and delicate red wine, which will best pair with light dishes such as poultry, mushroom-based pasta, and even high-fat fish like grilled salmon and tuna, as well as light cheeses such as Comte, Brie, or Taleggio.

6. Potential to age

Barrels

Both wines have the potential to age really well. There are Merlot-based Bordeaux wines, such as Chateaux Petrus that are older than 25 years.

Pinot Noir wines from Burgundy also get better with age, and some of them can be found to be 15 to 20+ years old.

Despite that, New World Pinot Noir is usually consumed young and rarely aged, typically within 5 years of production, and the reason behind that is the low tannin content.

7. Wine Glass

Barrel and a glass

There are different wine glass shapes for each of these wines that help them enhance their best aromas and flavors.

Merlot should be enjoyed out of a Bordeaux wine glass, which is specifically designed for heavier reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Barolo, or Petite Syrah.

Burgundy wine glass

Pinot Noir tastes amazing in a Burgundy wine glass, which is designed with a wide bowl in order to preserve the flavors of this elegant and delicate wine, and a narrow opening that serves to concentrate all those aromas and flavors on the nose.

8. Prices

store shelf

Both Merlot and Pinot Noir wines have representatives that are among the most expensive wines in the world.

A bottle of Merlot-based Bordeaux could cost 50 000 $ and more, while there are Pinot Noirs such as Romanee-Conti that are priced at more than 100 000 $.

Due to the difficulty of growing Pinot Noir grapes, and the versatility of Merlot grapes, Pinot Noir wines could be slightly more expensive.

Conclusion

An interesting fact to mention when comparing Merlot vs Pinot Noir is the famous movie from 2004 “Sideways” which had a significant impact on the wine industry.

Both Merlot and Pinot Noir experienced drastic ups and downs in sales and popularity.

In the film, one of the main actors expresses his sympathies for Pinot Noir and disrespect for Merlot wine.
That same year, following the “Sideways effect”, Merlot sales in the United States dropped by 5.5 %, while Pinot Noir sales increased by 16%.

The difference between Pinot Noir and Merlot is huge, and while somebody might prefer one, there will always be people that prefer the other.

Both wines are produced from noble grape varieties and are considered some of the best in the world by many wine experts.

Feel free to read our article Pinot Noir vs Cabernet Sauvignon, where we compare another great grape variety variety versus Pinot Noir.

FAQ

Which is sweeter Merlot or Pinot Noir?

Both Merlot and Pinot Noir are dry red wines with a sugar content of 1-3%.

Which is better Pinot Noir or Merlot?

Depends on your preferences, some people like Pinot Noir, while there are people that enjoy Merlot more.

Is Pinot Noir lighter than Merlot?

Yes, Pinot Noir is lighter in tannins and alcohol than Merlot.

Stan Kushkin

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