Merlot is one of the most widely planted wine grapes in the world. Zinfandel doesn’t even crack the top 10. But don’t let that deter you from trying this unique, robust varietal. Discover some of the key differences between Merlot vs Zinfandel.
My dad first introduced me to Zinfandel decades ago, soon after I got out of college. And since then, I’ve always had a soft spot for these jammy, slightly spicy wines.
They’re a big contrast to more easy-drinking Merlots, which are known for their smooth tannins and approachability.
In this wine tasting guide, I’ll walk you through flavor profiles for each of these wines. Plus I’ll provide food pairing ideas, storage recommendations, and average costs for a good bottle of each.
What is Zinfandel
The Zinfandel grape variety is thought to hail from Croatia in the Balkans. There, it goes by the name Crljenak Kaštelanski. But it’s New World Zins, especially those from California, that now set the standard for this unique, red wine.
Among its most recognizable traits is a spicy jamminess, full of intense flavors of ripe black fruits. Some of the most prized of these wines are Old vine Zinfandels. The vines are at least 50 years old, and the wines they produce are often more complex and well-balanced than other Zins.
Great examples of Zinfandel wines come from California regions like Paso Robles, Contra Costa, and Sonoma. That’s because the grapes thrive in warmer temperatures, allowing them to ripen longer on the vine and develop full, robust flavors.
These are much different from the lighter, sweeter White Zinfandels that were popular a few decades ago. And they’re not like so-called late harvest Zinsm whose grapes are left to ripen for several weeks longer, allowing more sugars to develop, resulting in sweeter wine.
Instead, traditional red Zinfandel is dry, with robust tannins and a deep red-purple hue.
In terms of production, about 70,000 acres of Zinfandel grapes are grown in different regions worldwide. That pales in comparison to other, more popular red varietals like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, each of which exceed well over 600,000 acres of planted vines throughout the globe. But if you’re looking for the best Zins, those from the United States lead the way.
What does Zinfandel taste like?
Zinfandels are generally medium-bodied red wines with medium acidity and medium-high tannins. And these wines often feature prominent dark fruit notes. These include blackberry, plum, raspberry, and cherry — fruits that mimic the wine’s dark red-to-purple color. Lodi Zinfandels from California’s Central Valley also have brighter hints of strawberry.
After Zins are aged in oak barrels, they become even more complex. The barrels impart spicy, bold flavors of cinnamon and star anise, as well as vanilla caramel, black licorice, and black pepper.
But these warm-weather grapes can also produce robust wine with high alcohol content. In some cases, that can top 16% ABV. So it’s better to chill it for a few minutes before serving so the alcohol doesn’t overpower the flavor profile of the wine itself.
Zinfandel food pairings
The rich flavors in Zinfandel make it an ideal choice to pair with a variety of foods, but particularly grilled and barbecued meats, from poultry to beef to lamb. The bold taste of Zins also complements roasted meat dishes and spicier pizzas. And they’ll go great with strong-flavored cheeses like blue cheese, gorgonzola, gruyere, and smoked gouda.
How should you serve Zinfandel?
Many Zinfandels can be higher in alcohol content than a lot of other red wines. So if you serve them too warm, like at room temperature, the taste of alcohol can mask that of the actual flavors in the wine.
Instead, serve Zinfandel slightly chilled at around 60°-65° Fahrenheit (or 15°-18° C). This will help the wines’ inviting, dark fruit notes to shine through.
Zinfandel: cost and aging
While you can find some Zinfandels in the $10 range, expect to pay double that — around $20 — for a good bottle. For higher quality Zins, $35-$50 is the norm.
In large part, you don’t need to age Zins as many are ready to drink right away. And most will only age well for about 2-5 years. However, some excellent Zins can be cellared for several more years, which will mellow out the tannins and enhance the wines’ primary flavor characteristics.
What is Merlot?
With round, soft tannins and approachable drinkability, Merlot has earned a reputation as a dry, easy-drinking red wine that can pair with a wide range of foods. And that has made it one of the most popular red wines.
The grape hails from the Bordeaux region of France, where many of the best Merlots are still produced. And it’s one of the six grape varieties used to make Bordeaux blends. The others are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carménère, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. But by the 1980s, winemakers around the world had begun making Merlot, with the grape especially taking root California’s Napa Valley.
Currently, more than 650,000 acres of Merlot grapes are grown globally, making it second in terms of acreage planted, behind only Cabernet Sauvignon.
The grape’s ability to thrive in a range of climates has some downsides, however, as there are plenty of examples of lower-quality, over-oaked Merlots that can overshadow the more complex and satisfying ones.
While primary growing regions are France and the United States, winemakers in Spain, Italy, South Africa, and areas of South America also produce Merlots.
👉🏼 Related: Malbec vs Merlot: What’s the Difference?
What does Merlot taste like?
Generally, Merlots are medium to full-bodied wines with balanced acidity. In French Merlot means “little blackbird,” which some believe refers to the dark color of the grape skins. That color is mimicked in the wine, which is typically a rich ruby red, with intense, bright fruit flavors.
Those flavors include plums, black cherry, raspberries, and blackberries. You’ll also sense notes of mocha, vanilla, and chocolate, plus aromas of black currant, caramel, nutmeg, and cinnamon thanks to barrel aging.
The wines’ relatively low tannin levels help make Merlots soft and mellow with a velvety texture and mouthfeel. Alcohol levels in Merlot wines typically fall in the 13%-14.5% ABV range. Cooler climate ones will generally have lower alcohol content as the grapes will have lower sugar levels.
Merlot food pairings
The approachability of Merlot makes it a versatile food pairing option. These dry red wines will complement stews and tender meats like braised lamb, braised pork, and Beef Bourguignon. And it does well with roasted poultry dishes like chicken and duck. If you prefer steak, the medium tannins in Merlot will be a nice balance with leaner cuts of red meat like Filet Mignon.
For sides, pair Merlot with earthy mushrooms or sweeter vegetables like squash and beets. Good cheese pairings include ones with robust flavors, like Parmigiano-Reggiano, manchego, and brie.
How should you serve Merlot?
Medium-bodied, lower alcohol Merlots can be served near or just below room temperature, around 68° F (20° C) without their flavor being muddled. Those with higher ABV should be served slightly cooler, below 65° F (18° C), to moderate the alcohol taste.
Merlot: cost and aging
Compared to other popular red wine varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, Merlot can be more affordable. Pleasant bottles can be had starting at around $15. If you’re looking for something a bit higher in quality, expect to pay in the $30-$50+ price range.
Many good Merlots can be consumed right away after buying without additional aging. But if you have some high-quality bottles, they can age well for years and even decades.
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