How to choose: Merlot vs Pinot Noir

The differences between Merlot and Pinot Noir from the taste to pairings

By Lucie Robson
Nov 17, 2021
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Pinot Noir vs Merlot: Differences Explained

Pinot Noir and Merlot are two of the most popular red wine grapes in the world but for different reasons. Where Pinot Noir delivers finesse, Merlot delivers easy-drinking wines. Where winemakers love Pinot Noir enough to tolerate how tough it is to cultivate, they love Merlot for its ability to adapt to different growing conditions. Grown across a range of world wine regions, in Central Italy, Merlot is one of the stars in Super Tuscan blends while Pinot Noir (known as Pinot Nero in Italy) thrives in the northern climes of Veneto, Piedmont, and the cooler sites of Tuscany. It’s also a key grape in Franciacorta sparkling wine made in Lombardy with the Champagne method.

 

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir comes from France and is an ancient, thin-skinned early budding plus early ripening variety. It likes cool climates and is difficult to grow but yields such fresh and complex wines that winemakers all over the globe admire it. Depending on the environment and winery, Pinot Noir can range from light and fruity to complex, earthy, and gamey. Unlike Merlot, it isn’t suitable for the high-volume production seen in warm and hot climates as it becomes jammy. Pinot Noir excels in cool spots with careful winemaking. This results in some very expensive, mature wines from Premier and Grand Crus in Burgundy. More affordable youthful examples are produced at lower Bourgogne appellation levels and in other world regions.

Main characteristics of Pinot Noir

  • When young, Pinot Noir is light to medium ruby with sour red cherry flavors. As it ages, the aromas transform into autumn and spices,
  • It’s dry with medium tannins, medium to full body, medium to high alcohol, and has high acidity.
  • Pinot Noir from slightly warmer sites displays more concentrated fruit and higher alcohol.
  • Oak adds spicy notes.
  • Mature Pinot Noir displays game, forest floor, mushroom. 

 

Examples of Pinot Noir

Pinot Nero “Ludwig” 2018, Elene Walch, Alto Adige, Veneto, Italy

Pinot Nero “Case Via” 2016, Fontodi, Tuscany, Italy

Franciacorta “Pas Dosè Riserva” 2008, Mosnel, Lombardy, Italy

 

Merlot

Merlot is another classic French grape that’s planted in Old and New World vineyards in moderate to hot climates. Easy to grow, its plush, fruity character is ideal for high-volume varietal wines as well as blends where it adds softness and a rounded body. Versatile and food-friendly, this grape’s accessibility doesn’t mean it lacks backbone. It stands alone as a fine varietal in select regions plus plays an important role in the iconic Bordeaux wines, especially in SAnt-Emilion and Pomerol.

 

 

Main characteristics of Merlot

It’s dry with soft tannins, has medium to high acidity, medium to high alcohol, and a medium to full body.

Oak fermentation/ maturation adds cloves, cedar, vanilla, and chocolate.

Mature Merlot features notes of stewed black and red fruit and dark chocolate.

 

Examples of Merlot:

  • Montiano 2015, Falesco Famiglia Cotarella, Lazio, Italy
  • In Violas Merlot 2016, Poliziano, Cortona, Tuscany, Italy
  • Campanaio 2018 (Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon blend), Podere Monastero, Tuscany, Italy
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Pinot Noir vs Merlot: Origin

Pinot Noir is a very old grape variety that has its root in France. Its name comes from the French words for “pine” in a reference to its tight clusters of pine-cone-like grape clusters and “black” for its dark fruit. It’s a very difficult grape to cultivate because its thin skins make it vulnerable to rot and frost. It also needs delicate treatment in the winery. 

 

Its home is Burgundy where it shines in the Côte d’Or in some the world’s finest and most expensive wines. Winemakers in this French region have developed techniques in the winery that have been copied all over the world and it remains the benchmark of premium Pinot Noir production. 

 

Owing to its long history, Pinot Noir has countless clones and crossings such as Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. As well as Burgundy, it produces top-tier wines in Oregon Valley, USA, Martinborough and Central Otago, New Zealand, Los Carneros and Russian River Valley in California, and the cooler areas of South Africa and Chile.

 

Merlot first appeared in Bordeaux wine records in the 1700s. According to popular legend, its name comes from a local blackbird thanks to its bright, blue-black berries. In this iconic wine region, Merlot is the most widely planted grape. Merlot loves cool clay soils which contribute to its signature soft red and black fruit, gentle tannins and acidity, and round body. On Bordeaux’s Right Bank, where it grows most successfully, it is the lead grape in Saint-Émilion and Pomerol blends. On the Left Bank, it is the second most important grape in famous and costly blends led by Cabernet Sauvignon. 

 

Merlot also stands alone in both high-volume and elite varietal wines. Quality Merlot is produced in parts of Chile, Washington State, Australia, New Zealand, and Stellenbosch in South Africa. Early- and easy-drinking Merlots are produced en-masse across the South of France and warmer New World wine regions. In Italy, Merlot comes into its own in varietal wines and blends in Bolgheri, Tuscany as well as in Chianti Classico blends.

 

Pinot Noir vs Merlot: Grapes

Pinot Noir is an ancient grape variety that has over 40 mutations – a fact that fascinates oenologists! Its history is lost in the mists of time but its modern-day presence in Burgundy can be traced back to the middle ages when religious orders cultivated crops including grapes and refined many winemaking practices. It’s an early budder and ripener that loves cool climates. This means grape growers often struggle to protect it from spring frost and damp throughout the growing season. The devotion to this grape is a testament to its quality and finesse.

 

 

Merlot comes from a crossing of Cabernet Franc and a lesser-known grape known as Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. Oenologists have also found connections to Carménère, Pinot Noir, and Malbec. Merlot’s a dark blue grape that’s an early budder and ripener. It thrives in the cool clay soils of Bordeaux’s Right Bank where it dominates in many of the most prestigious red blends of the region.

 

Pinot Noir: Tasting Notes

Pinot Noir’s aromas, flavors, and profile depend on where it’s made. In the finest Burgundy, it displays pure sour cherry and red fruit with spicy, meaty, mushroom notes as it ages. Further south in Burgundy, Pinot Noir has more concentrated fruitiness and a fuller body owing to the slightly warmer temperatures. Central Otago Pinot Noir shows intense fruitiness and high alcohol thanks to intense sunlight and long ripening days. High acidity is a key feature of Pinot Noir, and it tends to display this across all regions of production. Tannins and alcohol are medium to high while body is medium to full. Wherever it’s made, Pinot Noir has an unmistakable restraint and elegance.

 

Merlot: Tasting Notes

The aromas and flavors of Merlot vary depending on where it’s grown. In Bordeaux and the South of France, cherry and plum dominate in a medium to full body, high acidity, and medium tannin wine. In hot regions of high-volume production like California’s and Chile’s Central Valleys, Merlot displays concentrated black fruit, mild acidity, and medium to full body. In Italy on the Tuscan coast, Merlot wines have bold black and red fruit, deep tannins, and floral tones. Oak contributes spice and espresso notes.

 

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Pinot Noir vs Merlot: Food pairing

With the characteristics of varietal and blended Pinot Noir in mind, the following tips will help you pair it successfully:

Avoid anything very spicy or sweet. Both accentuate astringent tannins, acidity, and alcohol while dulling fruit and body.

Acidity in food enhances body and fruitiness.


 

Appetizers: Shrimp cocktail, pâtés, charcuterie, cheese and breadcrumb-stuffed mushrooms.

Entrées: French game dishes with light creamy sauces, Beef Wellington, mushroom risotto, lobster, Coq au vin, salmon and tuna, grilled asparagus and spring greens, roasted chicken, pasta, beef bourguignon.

Dessert: Dark chocolate mousse, dark chocolate-covered strawberries/ cherries.

Cheese: Goat’s cheese, brie, gorgonzola, mild blue cheeses, smoked cheeses.

 

Merlot’s fruity palate and medium tannins and acidity make it a great food wine. Keep in mind there are two main styles of Merlot. The best known is the international style made in the South of France and New World wine regions. This features concentrated black fruit, silky tannins, soft acidity, and, if oaked, spice and cedar. The second style features in Bordeaux and is rarely seen beyond this region. It’s lean, red-fruity, and herbaceous with high acidity and medium tannins. Oak fermentation and maturation add cedar and spice. The key to pairing Merlot successfully with food is remembering that it’s juicy and mid-weight. 

With the characteristics of varietal and blended Merlot in mind, the following tips will help you pair it successfully:


As with Pinot Noir avoid sweet or spicy foods as they highlight astringency and acidity while masking body and flavors.

Acidity and salt in food enhance body and fruitiness.

Concentrated, alcoholic Merlots match better with richer foods. 

 

Appetizers: Stuffed mushrooms; roasted potato skins; for vegetarians and meat-eaters, cheese fondue with bread, roasted potato wedges, roasted vegetables, and meatballs for dipping.

Entrées: Lamb kebabs with roasted vegetables; pizzas with tomato sauces like Margherita; Italian dishes like gnocchi or ravioli with rich tomato or creamy sauces.

Dessert: Chocolate brownies or crêpes.

Cheese: Brie, gouda, parmesan, medium cheddar.

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