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What's The Difference Between Pinot Noir and Merlot?

15 Jan 2023
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There’s no finer accompaniment for luxurious cuts of meat than a rich, full-bodied red wine. It’s nearly impossible to envision a prime steak or succulent roast without a rose-tinted glass of greatness flanking the plate. But new wine drinkers might not know which wine for the right food pairing.

Pinot Noir and Merlot are two of the richest, most refined reds and common choices to accompany celebratory meals and other occasions. While they’re both exceptionally delicious, they have different notes and nuances that make each marvelously, mouthwateringly unique.

Pour yourself a glass and pore over this page if you want to pop the cork off the mystery of the difference between Pinot Noir and Merlot. Trust us—once you understand their complexities, you’ll appreciate the diverse subtleties that make these two distinctly sublime.

Grapes: The Genesis of Difference

red grapes vineyard

If you’re ever wondering what does wine taste like, look no further than grapes. Behind every fine wine is a grand grape, and there are around 10,000 varieties for vintners to choose from when it comes time to grow. 1What’s budding on the vine determines the characteristics of what pours from the bottle, and both Merlot and Pinot Noir have their own associated grape varietals:

  • Merlot – Merlot grapes can trace their origin back to at least the 1700s. They’re a hardy, adaptable variety that can adjust from cool to warm temperatures. Their flexibility means they’re now grown in many different places, including stateside in California’s wine country. When they’re ready for harvest, they exhibit a dark tone of blue that can border on black at times.2

  • Pinot Noir – There’s a range of Pinot grapes grown to produce wines, but Pinot Noir is the most popular. The vines thrive in frostier winemaking climates, and wineries specializing in the red grape variety have established themselves worldwide. In America, the grape is common in colder towns on the California coast and characteristically cool central Oregon. They’re usually a bit darker in color than merlot grapes and can develop a deep midnight hue by harvest season.3

While the varietal of grape heavily impacts the final wine, the region they’ve grown in also factors into the final flavor. Grapes, like most crops and products in our modern world, have gone global.

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Production Powerhouses: Pinot Noir and Merlot Across the World

Both Pinot Noir and Merlot are Old World styles of grapes and wines. That means they were originally grown and produced in Europe (the Old World) before making their way to vineyards around the globe.

Merlot and Pinot Noir, as their names suggest, were first cultivated and bottled in France in two of the country’s leading wine regions:

  • Merlot – These grapes were first born in the world-famous Bordeaux wine country. The original Merlot vines were a crossbreed between Cabernet Franc and Magdeleine Noire des Charentes before becoming the varietal that we know today.4

  • Pinot Noir – Pinot Noir grapes are ancient, but they were first identified as a vineyard varietal in one of France’s other notorious wine regions, Burgundy. The grapes have since been bred into a plethora of subvarieties across the world.3

While both varieties started as old-world crops, they’re now harvested in every winegrowing corner of this blue, grape-shaped globe we live on. Some notable places of production include:

  • Australia – While Australia is infamous for its scorching heat, there’s enough climatic variation to grow both Pinot Noir and Merlot in the country. While Pinot is a bit of a fledgling outsider in the Aussie market, 19 Crimes produces a spectacular take on the classic style. Merlot, on the other hand, is the second red only to Shiraz in liters produced and exported by The Land Down Under5
  • California – The Golden Coast is America’s wine country, and both of our star varieties represent a large portion of the state’s grape harvest—Pinot Noir (7.1%) is favored by vintners over Merlot (4.8%), however.6 California’s diverse climatic zones mean the state’s wines run the gamut in terms of flavor and characteristics. Meomi Pinot Noir is a particular regional standout for lovers of expressive fruity notes and tinges of sweetness.
  • Argentina – While the South American wine juggernaut may be more well known for its Malbec, another M dominates much of the wine industry in the country. Merlot production averages over 50 million kilograms a year in the nation, and the style is said to have floral qualities and taste of stone fruits when grown in the region.7

Where a vine grows certainly has a heavy bearing on the wine’s final flavor but, regardless of where they’re cultivated, grape varietals have discernible characteristics that ring true across crops. In regards to Pinot Noir and Merlot, that results in some predictable flavors for each style.

glasses with red wine

Serving

Both certain types of wine benefit from aeration. But how long should wine breathe? That depends on the tannin content. The stronger the tannin concentration, the longer it needs to breathe. But aeration isn’t just about exposing the wine to oxygen but how, which is where serving comes in. Here’s how to best serve the two types of wine.

How to Serve Pinot Noir

The best way to serve Pinot Noir is to decant it. Pouring the whole bottle in a decanter exposes it to oxygen, which brings out the best of its flavors.

How to Serve Merlot

Similar to Pinot Noir, Merlot also benefits from decanting. But if you were curious about a single serve, the Merlot is best served in a Bordeaux glass.

Food Pairing

Pinot Noir

Because of its earthy flavors, the Pinot Noir is perfect with heart and rustic meals, like pot roast, roast turkey, filet mignon, etc. As a dry red wine, you can even use the Pinot Noir for stews and sauces.

Merlot

Merlot has a distinct acidity and fruit flavor. Because of its distinct fruity flavor, it pairs well with vegetable dishes and savory cheeses. However, Merlot pairs well with meatier dishes. Merlot is a sweet wine, which makes it a great palate cleanser.

Pinot Noir vs Merlot: Flavorful Distinctions

If you're new to wine tasting, you might think both tastes similarly. The most important difference between Merlot and Pinot Noir (and every other wine, for that matter) lies in their distinct flavors. While individual winemakers add their own flair and flavor to both of these ravishing varieties of red, there are some common characteristics across the two styles that make them distinct.

Merlot: A Majestic Mouthful

The adaptability of its grape means Merlot wine exhibits a wider range of flavors than other varieties. As a whole, however, the style is noted for its exceptionally smooth taste, low acidity, and lack of tannins.

Tannins are compounds that cause bitter, acrid flavors in wines. While they imbue wine with the bold tastes we know and love, too much of them and the flavor starts bordering on vinegar. Their abundance hinges on both the breed of grape and growing conditions:

  • Cold climate Merlot – Frostier fields lead to reduced tannins and more earthy and savory notes. Grapes grown in cold climates tend to yield flavors reminiscent of figs, tobacco, licorice, and herbs.

  • Warm weather Merlot – Vineyards in hotter locales usually produce grapes with higher tannins levels, fuller bodies, and heavy hits of fruitiness. The slight tartness of warm-weather grapes is reminiscent of cherry, clove, nutmeg, and cocoa.8

The Potently Nuanced Pinot Noir

Talking about tannins, they don’t play well with Pinot Noir. The particularly light-bodied red is exceptionally low in these bitter compounds, leading to an extremely smooth and drinkable flavor profile.

The grapes themselves contain some of the lowest tannin levels of any heritage varietal, and are comparable to breeds viticulturists developed specifically for their low bitterness.9 All this impeccable smoothness leads to a wine with notes of:

  • Sweet summer berries – Common Pinot Noir comparisons include raspberries, sweet cherries, currants, and other berries. The reduced tannins shield the flavor from the more tart tastes of Merlot.
  • Earthy ingredients – The decreased bitterness of Pinot Noir allows some of the background savory notes of the grapes to shine through. Hints of mushroom and other umami boosters aren’t uncommon descriptors to bestow upon Pinot.10

The difference between Pinot Noir and Merlot can be most easily discerned in their distinct flavors. Though one may confuse the two right off the pop of the cork, their divinely delicious differences can be distinguished with a little practice tasting.

It takes a really refined palate to know what plates are best to serve up alongside these wonderfully unique wines, however.

friends having lunch outside, drinking red wine

Pinot Noir and Merlot: Competing Culinary Companions

Both Pinot Noir and Merlot are spectacularly delicious to serve alongside various culinary creations. From a prime cut of juicy red meat to a plump pile of pasta, we all know the classic combinations for these lip-smacking reds.

The nuances between Pinot and Merlot do lend themselves more closely to certain foods, however. If you’re trying to perfect your pairings for these two mealtime muses, consider complementing:

  • Cheese boards – The bitter and funky notes of cheese pair nicely with sweeter, fruitier flavors—such as the grapes and figs that commonly appear alongside the dairy on these party favors. Opt for the sweeter sensation of Pinot Noir to cut through the powerful flavors of gruyere, havarti, and blue.
  • Barbecue – Beer is the traditional companion of grilling, but bucking tradition can often lead to brilliance. Merlot already goes famously with red meats, so serve it up alongside burgers, ribs, dogs, and other seared offerings at your next backyard barbecue—your guests won’t miss the suds with a wonderful wine perfecting their plate.
  • Your other favorites – Pinot Noir and Merlot’s pairings are only limited by your imagination. Merlot marries magnificently with savory dishes such as curries, roasted vegetables, and salty sandwiches. When satisfying your sweet tooth, Pinot Noir pairs perfectly with cheesecake, ice cream, and other divine desserts.

Produce a Perfect Pairing with Exceptional Wines from Barbank

Whatever it is you’re serving up—whether it’s dinner, dessert, or an engaging conversation—it’s essential to pick a wine that matches your offering.

With so many varieties to choose from, it can be difficult to find one that melds perfectly with your style—especially when the labels offer little to know information about a wine’s particular tastes.

Luckily, Barbank has a wide selection of Pinot Noir wine, Merlot wine, and other options available for online liquor delivery. The best part? They all have intricate descriptions, so you know what the wine tastes like without the guesswork.

For instance, if violets, sweet plums, and vanilla sound like a winning combination to you, then Josh Cellars sensational Merlot is right up your alley.

Or, if strawberry-rhubarb, persimmons, cloves, and black pepper excite your palate, Elk Cove’s Pinot Noir is calling your name.

Whatever your preference—Pinot Noir, Merlot, or others—Barbank has the perfect pairing for your palate.


Sources:

  1. European Neighbourhood Instrument Cross Border Cooperation. BESTMEDGRAPE: Out of 10,000 varieties, here some grapes types that might interest you!. https://www.enicbcmed.eu/
  2. University of California Davis. Merlot. https://iv.ucdavis.edu/
  3. University of California Davis. The Pinots. https://fps.ucdavis.edu/
  4. Bordeaux Wine Council. Merlot. https://www.bordeaux.com/us/Our-Terroir/Grape-varieties/Merlot
  5. Wine Australia. Merlot. https://www.wineaustralia.com
  6. California Department of Food and Agriculture. California Grape Crush. https://www.nass.usda.gov/
  7. Instituto Nacional de Vitivinicultura. Informe de Variedad Merlot. https://www.argentina.gob.ar/
  8. Masterclass. Learn About Merlot: What Is Merlot, How to Pair Merlot, and Where Merlot Grows. https://www.masterclass.com/
  9. National Library of Medicine. Tannin Content in Vitis Species Red Wines Quantified Using Three Analytical Methods. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/
  10. The Spruce Eats. What is Pinot Noir Wine?. https://www.thespruceeats.com/
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