Pinot Noir Vs. Merlot

Pinot Noir and Merlot are red wines that rank among the top ten most popular wines worldwide. Today we are going to put them head to head and compare pinot noir vs. merlot. These two wines can be vastly different. We’ll compare these two wines based on their differences in:

● Acidity
● Tannins
● Body
● Color
● Aroma
● Taste
● Alcohol by Volume (ABV%)
● Food pairings
● Caloric Content
● Serving and Storage

So, if you want to understand more about merlot and pinot noir, you’ve come to the right place!

Overview

These wines are made from black grapes native to France but are now grown in a variety of places across the world.

Pinot Noir is a thin-skinned grape that produces dry wines with low tannins, medium bodies, and bright acidities.

Pinot Noir can be an expensive red wine as it is not only popular but also difficult to cultivate. Merlot, on the other hand, produces wines with more tannins, a heavier body, and darker colors.

Merlot wines tend to come in a wide variety of flavors – from fruity to savory. Merlot is generally available in greater quantities, so the price varies significantly.

Be sure to also read my Sauvignon Blanc vs Pinot Grigio head to head comparison as well, I love doing this series.

Pinot Noir

You may be familiar with Pinot Noir red wine in part due to the 2004 film “Sideways,” which played a key part in its growing popularity.

Pinot Noir has a long history. When the Romans invaded France in 121 BC, they discovered the Gallic tribes enjoying a ‘mysterious’ wine.

They found the wine was created from the wild Pinot Noir grape and had a distinctive texture as well as red fruit and spice notes. The Romans decided to grow vineyards in various places across the continent, resulting in a wide variety of Pinot Noir wines.

A bottle of pinot noir and glasses on a wooden table.

Pinot Noir grapes are notoriously difficult to grow as they requires very specific growing conditions to thrive. The best Pinot Noir wines are made in Burgundy, where the soil and climate conditions allow the variety to shine. Pinot Noir is also grown in France’s Champagne area, where it is used to make sparkling wines.

Pinot Noir expresses its trademark characteristics when grown in cooler climates, due to its acidity disappearing in climates with hot weather. It is also cultivated in Italy, Germany, Austria, the United States, Australia, South Africa, and Chile.

As it is grown in so many different parts of the world, there are many names for it. In Italy Pinot Noir is called “Pinot Nero”, in Spain “Pinot Negro”, in Germany “Spätburgunder” and in Austria and the German-speaking part of Switzerland they call it “Blauburgunder”.

Merlot

Merlot does not have as long history as Pinot Noir. The oldest mention of the variety uncovered by wine historians dates from 1784, when a resident of Bordeaux claimed that Merlot was one of the best wines available at the time.

This leads historians to assume that this red wine existed before the 18th century, though no earlier references have been discovered.

The Merlot grape was once considered a “secondary” grape, and it was mostly used in blends with other wines by French winemakers. Fortunately, they recognized the potential of the merlot grape, and it is currently one of the most widely used stand-alone winemaking varieties.

A bottle of merlot and a glass on a wooden table.

France was devastated by a severe freeze in February 1956, destroying many Merlot grapes, and for the next few years, French vintners attempted to replant Merlot vines, only to be later damaged by rot.

In 1970 the French government banned vintners from planting new Merlot vines. The ban was lifted in 1975 and Merlot wines started regaining popularity. Occasionally this variety is used to produce rosé and white wines.

Outside of France, you will find Merlot cultivated in Italy, Spain, the USA, Argentina, Australia, Bulgaria and even China, since it can easily adapt to various soil-climatic conditions. Merlot has had over 50 synonyms but now, for the most part, Merlot wines will be labeled as such. However, some of its common synonyms are “Alicante”, “Merlau”, “Sémillon Rouge”, “Plan du Médoc” and “Saint-Macaire”.

Pinot Noir vs Merlot: A Comparison

Now that we are familiar with those two wine varieties, let’s take a comprehensive look at how they differ in terms of the individual characteristics.

CharacteristicPinot NoirMerlot
AcidityHighModerate
TanninsSilky and lowSoft but noticeable
BodyLight to mediumMedium to full
ColorLightMedium dark to opaque
AromasRed fruit (cranberries, raspberries, red cherries) and earthy notes (mushrooms)Plum, black cherries, mocha, vanilla, caramel, chocolate
TasteCherry, raspberry, mushroom, forest floor and notes of vanilla and baking spice when aged in oakGraphite, herbs, blackberries, black cherries, plums, cocoa and notes of vanilla, clove and cedar when aged in oak
Alcohol by Volume (ABV)12-15%13-14%
Food PairingsLight red meats (duck and lamb), white meats (turkey and chicken), salmon, mushroom risotto, pasta and vegetables. Avoid spicy and overly flavored dishesChicken, turkey, burgers and pizza with fruity Merlots. Game meat, lamb and beef with fuller-bodied Merlots
CaloriesAbout 125 calories in a 5 oz servingAbout 125 calories in a 5 oz serving
Serving & Storage55 to 65°F. Closer to 55°F for lighter bodied Pinot Noirs and closer to 65°F for fuller bodied ones. If recorked and refrigerated the wine will stay fresh for 1 to 3 days60 to 65°F. If recorked and refrigerated the wine will stay fresh for 2 to 4 days.
Pinot Noir vs. Merlot: A head to head comparison.

Conclusion

Red wines are often a matter of personal preference as to which wine you prefer. Merlot and Pinot Noir are both outstanding wines. The tannins in Merlot may be delightful to some, but they may be overbearing to others.

The acidity of Pinot Noir is the same way. Pinot Noir has the advantage of being able to make sparkling wines, and this style has a large following of its own, although Merlot has a wider range of taste and aromatic profiles, making it easier to select one that suits your preferences.

Remember that each wine expresses different characteristics depending on the part of the world where the vine is grown and the winemaking techniques followed, so wines of the same variety might be completely different. I invite you to host your own wine tasting events to find the perfect match for you.

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