Cabernet sauvignons and merlots are two wildly popular and well-established red wine varietals. So popular, in fact, they’re the number one and number two most-planted wine grape varietals in the world — over 840,000 acres for cabernet sauvignon and 657,300 acres for merlot.
However, if you’re like most people and don’t carry a sommelier certificate, it can be hard to distinguish between the two. Cabernet sauvignon and merlot share many similarities to the naked eye. Yet their sips can carry vast but subtle differences for the discerning tongue to untangle. (And to pair properly with a meal.)
Appreciate the rich heritage between these two delicious, popular red wines — and impress your friends along the way — with this in-depth cabernet sauvignon versus merlot guide.
Important Wine Terms to Understand When Tasting Wines
Before determining the differences between merlot and cabernet sauvignon, it’s necessary first to learn some terms and descriptions commonly used when wine tasting.
A wine’s coloration is broken down into two categories:
- Body color: Body color describes the hues of the wine once poured in a glass. Is it dark or light, translucent or opaque? Does it look darker in the center of the pour or remain evenly toned? Such descriptions encompass a wine’s overall body color.
- Rim color: Rim color accounts for the secondary colors on display where the wine touches the edge of a glass. For red wines like merlots and cabernets, rim colors can vary from blood orange to muddy browns.
Wine body refers to the weight and feel of wine as you drink. Every wine varietal holds various textures and sensations in the mouth, tongue and throat that help identify it from others. What’s more, red wines like merlots and cabs also contain lees, little bits of residual yeast that sink to the bottom of barrels during aging and often end up in individual wine bottles.
Wine producers will frequently stir lees back into their red wine bases, making a wine’s body heavier and more oily. These lees, combined with the weight and texture while sipping, can help identify which type of red wine you’re enjoying.
Words you’ll often hear to categorize a wine’s body include:
- Light: Light-bodied wines tend to hit the front or center of your tongue and fade quickly between sips.
- Full: Full wines fill your entire mouth, leaving a heavy, dense coating on your tongue and in the back of your throat.
- Angular: Angular wines tend to be middle-bodied, hitting you over and over again in the same areas of your mouth and tongue.
A wine’s bouquet describes its aromas. With the majority of our sense of taste tethered to smell, bouquets are a critical aspect of distinguishing between wine types like merlots and cabernets.
Common bouquet descriptors might be:
- Floral: Soft, sweet and slightly herbaceous, like entering a garden store.
- Steely: Strong, pungent and in-your-face smells that hit you immediately after opening a bottle.
- Refined: Nuanced aromas that mix savory and sweet. Refined bouquets may also elicit a small salivatory reaction or even cause different parts of the tongue to tingle.
Acidity, or wine “brightness,” refers to the puckering sensations a wine triggers. You’ll often hear simple terms noting a wine’s acidity:
- Low: Low-acidity wines contain softer, smoother and more buttery sips.
- Medium: Medium-acidity means a wine initially triggers that crisp, tongue-tingling sensation but fades after a few seconds.
- High: High acidity wines are strong and tart-forward, resulting in an unmistakable puckering reaction in the mouth and tongue.
Sweetness sits right up there with acidity in terms of descriptions most often used to describe a wine’s taste. The sweeter the wine, the more fruit and candy notes you’ll experience. The less sweet a glass of wine, the more savory, earthy or oaky flavors you’ll pick up.
The dryness of a wine describes how much residual sugar it contains post-fermentation, which in turn affects how sweet or bitter the wine will taste. Both red and white wines have varietals that fall on the dry side. Overall, the dryness of a wine will be one of the essential aspects of classifying and pairing the beverage. This is why you’ll often see varietals compartmentalized according to dry, off-dry or sweet, with the driest wines eliciting a series of tongue and jaw “chews” that is the mouth’s attempt to rehydrate itself.
A wine’s strength tells you how intense its flavor profile is. This description can be subjective, though, since a flavor profile itself is contingent on what a person notes while drinking their wine.
Wine strength is best categorized according to three broad descriptors:
- Flat: Soft wines are those with more mellow, caramelized or vanilla notes that reach and linger in the middle section of your tongue.
- Moderate: Moderate-strength wines can be sweet or dry upon initially hitting your tongue, though they round out by the end, allowing the wine’s other flavors and nuances to come forth.
- Intense: Intense strength wines are tart, puckery and long-lasting, dancing around numerous parts of your tongue, mouth and throat. Intense wines also, though not always, tend to be full-bodied and either highly acidic or highly sweet.
Finish is the impact a wine has on your mouth’s roof and back as well as your throat as you swallow. In other words, it’s a fancier way to describe a wine’s aftertaste. Higher-end bottles of wine will have stronger finishes, allowing you to still pick up the wine’s flavors after each sip, from fruits to spices to savory notes.
You’ll hear many of the following words used to describe a wine’s finish:
- Buttery: Smooth and silky, gently lingering on the tongue like actual oil or butter. For white wines, a buttery-like finish is commonly described as “creamy,” whereas red wine comparisons use “silky” to describe the same characteristic.
- Crisp: Light and refreshing, usually leaving fruity or herby flavors behind.
- Earthy: Heavy “green” flavors, such as soil, minerals, concrete, oak and smoke.
9. Fruity Versus Oaky
Many red and white wines are aged in oak barrels to enhance or complement their grape’s natural fruity and soil flavors. This practice results in smell and taste notes which often lends a wine added layers of complexity.
A wine can be both fruity and oaky. However, depending on the wine’s body and strength, you’ll taste these flavors at different times:
- Fruity descriptors: Jam, syrup, honey, melon, pears, berries, currants, citrus, cherries, plums.
- Oaky descriptors: Vanilla, bourbon, coconut, butter, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, chocolate, sage, pine.
Tannins are naturally occurring plant compounds. While found other trees, spices, teas, nuts and other fruits, wine grapes contain some of the highest concentrations of these chemicals in existence.
Both the quantity and quality of tannins influence a wine’s taste. Some grape varieties have higher concentrations of tannins, while others are naturally lower. High tannin counts most often make a wine taste more acidic and bitter, resulting in the following scale:
- Juicy: Low or tamed tannin levels that translate into a fruit-forward wine.
- Chewy: Bolder, astringent wines with a strong tannin profile, either due to their quality or their amount. “Chewy” describes the actual motion your tongue and jaw make to “chew” out wines with dry, sharp tannins.
- Firm: Middle-of-the-road tannin amounts, or high-tannin wines treated to present heavy fruit or oak notes and finishes.
Cabernet Sauvignon Description
Cabernet sauvignon hails from the legendary wine region of Bordeaux, France. Its grapes grow best in warmer, milder climates and can be found in nearly every wine-producing region in the world, from the mountain foothills of Chile to the golden groves of California to the outback vineyards of Australia.
What distinguishes cabernet sauvignon from the almost-as-popular merlot — and other red wines at that? Explore the unique taste profile and composition of cabernet sauvignon below.
1. Tannins: Medium to High
Cabernet sauvignons grapes carry medium-to-high tannin levels. This means, on their own, this grape varietal produces a bolder, tarter base but still lets winemakers coax additional fruity and earthy flavors.
2. Color: Burgundy
On-the-vine cabernet sauvignon grapes are a distinct periwinkle blue. Once picked, fermented and bottled, a glass of cabernet carries a lush, deep red burgundy coloration with a noticeably lighter scarlet rim. Other cabernet sauvignon color notes include:
- Opaque centers, with younger cab savs containing even denser, less translucent cores.
- Faded rims, with a glass of cabernet sauvignon lightest where it meets the glass
3. Body: Full
Cabernet sauvignon is a full-bodied red wine. In fact, it tops the list of full-bodied red varietals, carrying some of the lushest, thickest sips that will coat most of the mouth, lingering between sips. Many describe cabernet sauvignon’s body as unctuous, gravelly, rich and deep. Its full-bodied composition also means this wine type:
- Is on the strong side, averaging between 13.5 percent to 15 percent alcohol by volume (ABV)
- Should be served at room temperature
4. Bouquet: Earthy
One of the defining features of cabernet sauvignon is its bell pepper aroma. Decanting a fresh bottle of cabernet sauvignon will introduce the nose to notes of peppers, cassis, dark chocolate, peppercorns, pencil shavings and figs.
However, don’t let its earthy and savory-leaning bouquet mislead you. Drinking a glass of cabernet sauvignon will be an experience that leans toward the sweet side. Read more on the sweet versus dry flavor profiles of cabs below.
5. Acidity: Medium
Unblended, pure cabernet sauvignon is a medium acidity wine. They carry a pleasant amount of pucker and tart that hits your tongue up front before giving way to its earthier and sugary notes.
6. Sweet or Dry: Dry
Cabernet sauvignon is one of the driest red wine varietals on the market — indeed, they’re one of the driest wines altogether! Thanks primarily to its full body, a sip of cabernet sauvignon will feel denser and heavier on the tongue, therefore creating that familiar, mouth-drying sensation.
7. Strength: Moderate to Intense
Cabernet sauvignon’s bold, full-body and high-tannin count are the one-two punch behind its moderate to intense strength. Depending on the quality of the soil where it was grown, its maceration techniques, oak processing and aging amount, the balance between a cab sav’s vegetal, spice and sugar notes will vary. One thing is sure, though — you’ll get both sweet and savory in a good bottle of cabernet sauvignon.
8. Finish: Long and Savory
A cabernet sauvignon’s finish is robust and earthy, blending sharp spices with smooth herbs and pops of wild berries. You’ll hear many people describe a cabernet sauvignon’s finish with flavors like anise, peppercorn, currants, sour berries and fresh-cut wood.
9. Fruit Notes: Subtle and Tart
Cabernet sauvignon is a red wine whose flavor profile truly blends sweet and savory. Of those sweet notes, flavors and aromas skew more toward wild, foraged and tart fruits. You’ll taste things like:
- Black cherries
- Black plums
10. Oak Notes: Delicate
Most cabernet sauvignons are aged in oak barrels. However, that goal of that oak-aging process is more to tame the cab sav’s high tannin count and subsequent astringency. It has less to do with infusing most cabernet sauvignons with an oaky uptick itself, which, if done haphazardly, can clash with this varietal’s bold, peppery profile.
Like many other wine grape types, Merlot calls the Bordeaux region of France its home. Cultivated in the late 1700s, Merlot grapes are a younger varietal in the red wine family. Yet merlot wine marries unique elements of sweetness, smoothness and spice unmatched by most other varietals, catapulting it to a flavor profile all its own.
1. Tannins: Low
A glass of merlot contains low, subtle amounts of tannins, particularly compared to other red wines. This low tannin count is a major contributor to merlot’s silky, fruity taste as opposed to a more bitter, pucker-inducing pour.
2. Color: Ruby Red
Merlot wines come in a signature ruby red. Their centers are darker and opaque, with little light passing through. As merlot ages, its colors and cores will further lighten.
A standard glass of merlot will also carry sharp rim variation. Merlot rims carry a distinct orange edge — a color you’re hard pressed to find in other red wine types. Other color distinctions for merlots include:
- Merlots grow paler as they age
- Merlot rims darken as they age, changing from orange to firehouse brick red
3. Body: Medium-Light
Merlot carries an airy, refreshing but fragrant body. Sips will hit the front and center of your tongue then quickly glide away, leaving traces of sweet summer fruits. The overall effect is a red wine type with delightful suppleness, drinkable all on its own or paired with a wide range of foods.
4. Bouquet: Fruity
Smell a glass of merlot, and you’ll experience scents of cherries, raspberries, licorice, plums and espresso. Its fruit-forward palate is one of merlot’s most defining characteristics. However, those grown in cooler climates like Italian Merlot carry slightly more structure, adding earthier upticks like tobacco, mocha and cassis to smells and sips.
5. Acidity: Medium
When it comes to acidity, merlot sits in the middle of the red wine pack. It displays refined pops of sweet and tart softened by the lower tannin count and medium-light bodies.
6. Sweet or Dry: Dry
Merlot has a dry flavor profile with virtually no residual sugar left after fermentation.
However, merlot’s dry versus sweet classification can be confusing to novices. Even though merlot is a fundamentally fruit-forward red wine, it’s not defined by a sugary-sweet aftertaste. To illustrate the difference, consider what it’s like to eat strawberry-flavored piece candy versus an actual strawberry. The former is overtly, almost syrupy sweet, while the latter is much more delicate.
7. Strength: Moderate to Intense
- Cool weather merlot is decidedly more intense, integrating a bit more pungent, earthier flavors alongside red fruits.
- Hot weather merlot maintains that juicy, berry, refreshing zip beloved of this red wine type.
8. Finish: Silky
Both warm or cool-climate grown merlots contain a characteristically silky finish. Merlots maintain that signature smooth, even and velvety balance from the tip of the tongue to the back of the throat, providing a mellow end to each sip.
9. Fruit Notes: Red Fruits
Merlots are one of the most fruit-forward of all red wines, making them a highly approachable and flexible beverage choice. Merlot’s lush fruit notes are often encompassed by flavors like:
- Wild blueberries
- Rose petal
10. Oak Notes: Coffee and Cocoa
Merlots tend to receive medium-age barrel processing, meaning they age a minimum of eight to twelve months. It’s just enough time to introduce richer, deeper sweet notes to the varietal, reminiscent of cocoa beans, espresso powder and even smoke.
Merlot Compared to Cabernet Sauvignon: How to Pick Between and Differentiate the Two
Cabernet sauvignon and merlot can be confusing given their shared lineage and certain congruent characteristics. To complicate matters, both comprise the signature base of Bordeaux Blends, a popular red wine mixture that aims to highlight the best of both these varietals.
What’s the real difference between merlot and cabernet sauvignon — and how do you know which to pick for a particular meal, event or nightcap? Find out once and for all with this merlot/cabernet sauvignon comparison.
1. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon Similarities
Both merlot and cabernet sauvignon are derived from the same parent grape — the cabernet franc. Sharing a branch on the family vine means these two varietals maintain a handful of similarities, namely when it comes to their color, strength and dryness levels:
- Both cabernet and merlot have deep, dark, ruby-colored bodies.
- Both hold opaque centers and lighter rims.
- Both are moderate to intensely strong, carrying bright flavor profiles and enticing unique sensations on the tongue.
- Both take oak-barrel treatments well.
- Both are dry red wines — indeed, they’re considered two of the driest commercial red wine types in the world.
2. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon Differences
Like any siblings, merlot and cabernet sauvignon maintain significant differences:
- Merlot is a fundamentally fruit-forward wine.
- Cabernet sauvignon is a savory, earthy-driven wine.
- Cabernet sauvignon’s body is fuller, heavier and more robust, lingering for longer on the tongue compared to merlot’s medium-body, quicker finish.
- Merlot is less acidic, without as strong of a puckering or prickling sensation in the mouth.
- Though close, a merlot’s body should be a slightly lighter ruby red than cabernet sauvignon’s rich burgundy.
- Merlot rims are orange, whereas cabernet sauvignons are gradient shades of red.
- Cabernet sauvignon will be more translucent around glass rims and edges than merlot.
- Cabernet sauvignon has a much higher tannin count than merlot. This means a higher lees presence in each bottle, as well as a stronger, more bitter taste with each sip.
Pick a Merlot When…
Opt for a bright bottle of merlot next time you or your friends are in the following situations:
- You’re new to drinking red wines.
- You’re a fan of Semillons, Auslese rieslings, Californian sauvignon blancs and dry chenin blancs.
- You need a red wine to complement a variety of foods or cuisines, such as during a potluck.
- You prefer fruity, juicy or lighter red wines.
- You’re drinking outside on a hot day.
- You’re looking to be generally more budget conscious, as more merlots are grown stateside and thus tend to be more cost-effective to source.
Pick a Cabernet Sauvignon When…
Go for a delicious bottle of cabernet sauvignon if you or your party:
- Don’t like sweet wines, red or white.
- Crave a glass of wine to savor on its own.
- Are fans of dry Oregon chardonnays, ribollas or Savennieres.
- Enjoy high-tannin, heavier wines with longer finishes.
- Are drinking indoors on a cool or winter evening.
- Want to experiment with higher aged or oakier wines.
Discover and Compare the World of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon Red Wines at Marketview
The world of red wines is rich, fascinating and — at times — overwhelming. At Marketview Liquor, we offer an extensive yet approachable catalog of cabernet sauvignons and merlots both in-store and online, available to ship to your home. Make your red wine comparisons easier with our online search features, filtering everything from price and points to subregions and vintage years. Browse our online selection and order your next wine case of merlot, cabernet sauvignons — or both!