What’s the Difference Between Cabernet and Merlot?

Question from Steve: Am I the only one that finds it hard to tell the difference between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon? How do I tell them apart?  
Reply: Hi, Steve. I think it’s confusing for a lot of people and I salute you for being the one with the courage to ask the question. BTW, what is it about wine that makes everyone feel like there’s something wrong with them if they don’t know everything about wine? A <a href=" http://www.mastersofwine.org/” target=”_blank”>Master of Wine once said something that really rings true: “No on can master wine. There’s too much to know.” So, no need to feel insecure, right?

The truth is that Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon make wines that taste quite similar, as most winemakers will tell you. Both varieties come from the Bordeaux region of France, where they’re traditionally blended together.

In fact, Merlot is the most widely planted variety in Bordeaux which is probably because it ripens early than Cabernet Sauvignon. If the late-ripening Cabernet gets rained out, early-ripening Merlot can save the vintage.

One noticeable difference between the two is that Merlot is thin skinned, compared to Cabernet, so by nature it’s lighter in color and body. And, it’s also less tannic, which translates to early drinking – yay! I love Jancis Robinson’s characterization of Merlot as “Cabernet without the pain.” Merlot often shows red fruit where Cabernet is pretty consistently black. And, Merlot’s a bit more herbaceous and leaves a fleshy impression where Cabernet is highly structured (more like the skeleton than the flesh.

But –  you can find black, tannic Merlot just as you can find lighter styles of Cabernet Sauvignon. It all depends upon where and how the grapes were grown and how the winemaker manages them in the cellar.

According to Jancis Robinson, Merlot has some genetic relationship with Cabernet Franc (which is also a parent of Cabernet Sauvignon) and is likely related to Carmenere (which was misidentified as Merlot until rather recently) and Cabernet Sauvignon, so it’s no surprise that it’s a good companion for Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot goes back to at least 1784 in Bordeaux.  
Their similarity probably accounts for the long history of blending them together. If the Cabernet is too tannic, blending in Merlot will soften it up and bring the fruit forward. If the Merlot is too loosy-goosey (technical term), the Cabernet is there to bring some discipline to the blend!

So, it’s perfectly natural to be unsure of the varietal makeup when it comes to these old friends. The best thing to do is just enjoy.

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