Merlot vs. Cabernet Sauvignon Wine Guide

merlot vs cabernet sauvignon wine

The world of wine can be both exciting and intimidating at the same time, especially for new wine drinkers. There are so many different types of wine, so many varieties, confusing lingo and rules to follow… but that doesn’t have to be the case.

Wine drinking should be an enjoyable experience for everyone. The fancy rules, like drinking specific wines out of specific glasses, or confusing lingo, like what tannins do to a wine, are available if you want them, but they are not required to enjoy a nice glass of wine.

The most important part of drinking wine is finding a wine that you enjoy. Because ultimately if you don’t like what you’re drinking, what’s the point?

How to Find What Types of Wine You Like

It sounds so simple, find a type of wine you enjoy, but in actuality it’s a little more complicated than that.

As we mentioned, there are a lot of confusing terms that come along with wine drinking. But when it comes down to finding a wine that’s enjoyable to you, sweet and dry are the basic terms you should know.

A sweet wine is just that, some sugars from the grapes are left in the wine during the fermentation process, giving the wine a sweeter flavor. Dry wine has removed all, or most, of the remaining sugars, thus leaving the wine with a less sweet taste.

Dry obviously does not mean that the wine itself is no longer wet, it just means that it’s less sweet and can sometimes leave a dry taste in your mouth.

Using that knowledge you should be able to better determine which types of wine you like. After you’ve determined if you’re looking for more of a sweet wine or a dry wine, then it’s going to be a matter of tasting each one until you find one that you truly enjoy.

Then, once you’ve settled on a variety of wine you like, the fun really begins. Each winery and winemaker likes to put their own little twist, or use their own methods when producing their wine. So even if you decide that Cabernet Sauvignon is your favorite wine variety, you may find that one wine producer/winery has better flavor over another.

But where does one start?

Let’s take a look at two of the most popular red wines in the world and find out what makes them so different from one another. This may help give you a starting point when figuring out which wines to try.

Merlot vs. Cabernet Sauvignon Wine

Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are both red wines that originated in France in the 15th century, and are extremely popular around the world, however that’s about where their similarities end.

From the soil used to grow the grapes, to the production, taste, and food pairings, these wines are very different.

Growing and Production

Merlot thrives in clay and limestone-based soils while Cabernet Sauvignon tends to grow better in soil that is more like gravel and drains better. And surprisingly, soil makes a big difference.

By growing grapes in different soils and by harvesting at different times during the growing process, you can control the different flavor note in the finished wine. So while the grapes are different, the environment and the harvest also play a major role in the different flavors you taste between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The grapes in Cabernet Sauvignon also tends to be smaller, with a thicker skin, which gives the wine that dry (or high tannin) taste.

Taste and Flavor

While Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are both red wines, their flavor profiles are quite different. Merlot tends to be a bit fruitier tasting than a Cab, but this doesn’t mean it’s a sweet wine. In fact, Merlot is considered a dry wine due to the tannin levels in the wine, but the flavor profile tends to lean towards fruits like berries, along with some earthy overtones like vanilla, clove and mocha.

This differs from Cabernet Sauvignon in that a Cab wine is a much bolder flavor. It’s also a dry wine, and the tannin levels can be a bit overpowering to some people, which is why it’s a good wine to pair with food that can help cut through the dryness.

Hints of cherry, vanilla, and spices can be found in a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, while also retaining some of that oaky flavor you get from aging it in oak barrels.

Food Pairings – Merlot vs. Cabernet Sauvignon

When it comes to food pairings for these two wines, they both compliment different types of food.

Cabernet Sauvignon lends itself better to red meats and more hearty dishes like steak, burgers, or lamb. Where as Merlot is a more versatile wine and comes in different styles. If you find a fruitier Merlot that would be better suited for lighter meats like chicken, pork, and pasta dishes… even pizza. Where as more full-bodied Merlots would fit in the same realm as Cabernet Sauvignon, and be great with red meats.

Check out our post on foods that pair well with Cabernet Sauvignon, for more information on how to maximize your cab experience.

So Which is Better Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot?

The answer to that question is… you just need to try them both and decide for yourself. 

What you like in a wine may not be the same things that someone else likes in a wine. Some people enjoy the dry taste associated with high tannin levels in some wines, whereas other people do not. Some people enjoy really sweet wines, where other people find that to be a little overwhelming, taking away from what they love about wine.

So the real way to figure out what types of wines you like is to sit down and try a bunch of different varieties, and then once you cut it down to varieties you like, then you can experiment with different wine makers and how those differ from one another.

Going to a wine tasting or hosting a wine tasting party are great ways to experience a variety of different wines, which will help you determine which are your favorites.