One of these grapes is known for producing complex, elegant wines. The other is popular for creating soft, velvety ones. But that’s just one way they’re unique. Discover the main differences between Pinot Noir vs Merlot — and what to look for in a good bottle each — in this easy-to-use wine tasting guide.
If you’re familiar with the movie Sideways, you probably know the strong feelings Paul Giamatti’s character Miles had toward both Merlot and Pinot Noir.
He wasn’t a Merlot fan, but here’s how he described Pinot: “It’s a hard grape to grow. It’s thin-skinned, temperamental… Only somebody who really takes the time… to understand Pinot’s potential… can coax it into its fullest expression.”
Clearly, Miles loved a good glass of Pinot. And I get it. I’ve lived in Oregon for more than 25 years and our humble Willamette Valley lays claim to some of the best Pinot Noirs in the world.
But Merlot continues to be a favorite among wine enthusiasts for its mellow tannins and easy drinkability.
In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at the unique characteristics of each wine varietal — from flavor profiles and aroma to ideal food pairings and cost. So you can buy your next bottle with confidence.
What is Pinot Noir?
Pinot Noir grapes are known for producing elegant, light-bodied red wines, with low tannins — a contrast to bigger, bolder reds like Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz.
They’re also commonly the main grape in many Champagnes, sparkling wines, and rosés.
Pinot Noir hails from the Burgundy region of France. It’s one of the wine-growing area’s big two grapes; the other being Chardonnay. It’s believed to date to earlier than the first century AD, when Romans conquering the Gaul region — now France — witnessed locals fermenting the grape and making wine from it. So they quickly adopted the practice and began making their own.
Where is Pinot Noir grown?
Fast forward to today and Pinot Noir is now Burgundy’s most widely grown red wine grape. But it doesn’t thrive everywhere. A key aspect of Pinot Noir grapes is its thin skin. It helps give the wine its complex flavors, but it can also make the grapes more vulnerable to developing rot and disease from hot or cold temperature swings.
So it does best in moderate to cool climates with well-draining, chalky soil (like Burgundy and Oregon). Those cooler growing conditions result in wines with high acidity and lower tannins that are often delicate and fruit-forward.
Pinot Noir now ranks among the most widely planted grapes in the world. Apart from Burgundy and the Willamette Valley, other popular growing regions include California, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, and South Africa.
What is Merlot?
Beloved for its soft tannins and smooth texture, Merlot is an approachable red wine that goes well with a variety of foods. Merlot is the French word for “little blackbird,” and the grape has its roots in the Bordeaux region of France.
It’s one of the six red wine grapes — along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carménère — used to make Bordeaux blends.
Where is Merlot grown?
Merlot dates back as far as the 14th century, and by the late 18th century, it become one of Bordeaux’s most popular grape varieties. But it has had its struggles.
A harsh frost in 1956 decimated many of the Merlot vines in Bordeaux. Beginning in 1970, several seasons of severe rot led to a ban on planting any new Merlot.
However, by the 1980s, its comeback was on, and not just in France. Vineyards in the United States, especially California’s Napa Valley, were widely planting the grape, which led to increased exposure and consumption of Merlot wines outside of Europe.
Currently, more than 650,000 acres of Merlot grapes are grown worldwide. That’s second only to Cabernet Sauvignon.
It grows well in a variety of climates. Along with France and the United States, major Merlot wine regions now include Italy, South Africa, Spain, and areas of South America.
Pinot Noir flavor profile
With colors that range from a lighter ruby hue to a deep burgundy red, Pinot Noir wines are complex in both appearance and taste. And it’s Pinot Noir’s layered flavor profile and delicate body that has made it a favorite among wine lovers worldwide.
Pinot Noir is typically a dry wine with a palate that includes fruity flavors as well as earthy ones. Red fruits like cherry, strawberry, raspberry, and currants feature prominently in many of these wines. And you’ll notice notes of black cherries, especially in Pinot Noirs produced in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Pinot will sometimes exhibit flavors of vanilla and baking spices as well, due to aging in oak barrels.
Another common taste descriptor for Pinot Noir is “forest floor,” which refers to the types of foods and aromas that you can find there. Think earthy flavors like mushrooms, and aromas you might notice in a forest after a fresh rainfall.
Wines produced in a cool climate will generally have more acidity as the lower temperatures slow ripening and reduce natural sugar levels in the grapes. Since many Pinot Noir grapes are grown in cooler regions, these wines are typically high in acid. This often results in bright, vibrant wines.
Some younger wines may be noticeably tart, so it’s a good idea to age them for 3-5 years to allow them to mellow and develop smooth, silky textures.
Pinot Noir is typically light-to-medium bodied with alcohol levels between 13% and 15% ABV, depending on the climate in which they’re produced.
Merlot flavor profile
Rich, dark fruit notes such as black cherry, plum, and raspberry are characteristics of many Merlots. Layers of vanilla and mocha are also common. They help mellow out the wine and give it more depth.
In terms of aroma, Merlots feature black currant, caramel, cinnamon, and spices such as nutmeg and cardamom.
But it’s Merlot’s soft tannins that are its signature trait. Rather than being astringent or chewy, Merlots have a rounder, velvety texture which makes the wines pleasurable to drink and widely appealing.
Generally medium to full-bodied, these wines also feature moderate acidity, which helps them pair well with a variety of foods.
Merlot has an inviting rich red, ruby color and features alcohol levels in the 13%-14.5% ABV range. Ones grown in warmer climates will typically be on the higher end of that spectrum.
Pinot Noir food pairings
Pinot Noir’s lighter body lends itself well to pairing with lighter dishes that won’t overpower the wine. White meat like poultry and pork are good choices, as are pizza, roast vegetables, and mushroom dishes.
Also fatty fish like salmon is an excellent choice as it can help balance out the wine’s higher levels of acidity. Semi-soft cheeses like Emmentaler, Gruyère, and Gouda will also complement Pinot.
Merlot food pairings
Rich dishes pair well with velvety, richer merlots. So braised meats or stews like Beef Bourguignon are great options, as are roast duck and lamb.
Leaner red meat like roast beef or filet mignon also complements Merlot — as do sweeter roast vegetables like beets and squash. Pair Merlot with hard cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano and Manchego.
You can find a good bottle of Pinot Noir in a variety of price ranges. Young, wines that are ready-to-drink typically sell for between $15-$20. Higher quality Pinot Noirs and ones meant for aging can cost from $35-$50. And it’s not uncommon for exceptional ones to go for $100 or more.
Similarly, you can also find a nice bottle of Merlot starting at around $15. Those suitable for cellaring will fetch more in the $30-$50 price range and up.
Merlot vs Pinot Noir summary
Here’s a recap of the key differences between Merlot and Pinot Noir.
- Primary growing regions: France, United States, Italy, South Africa, Spain, and areas of South America
- Worldwide growing acres: 657,300
- Body: Medium to full
- Color: Deep, rich red
- Acidity: Medium
- Tannins: Low
- Flavor notes: Plum, black cherry, raspberry, vanilla, mocha
- Cost: $15-$20 for ready-to-drink Merlot; $25 and up for higher quality
- Primary growing regions: France, United States, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, and South Africa
- Worldwide growing acres: 285,000
- Body: Light-medium
- Color: Light ruby hue to dark burgundy
- Acidity: Medium to high
- Tannins: Low
- Flavor notes: Strawberry, black cherry, raspberry, vanilla
- Cost: $15+ for younger Pinot Noir; $30 and up for high quality; $80+ for very high quality
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