Merlot vs. Cabernet Sauvignon: What Are The Differences You Must Know

We all like a glass of good wine with dinner every once in a while. But do you know what type of wine Merlot and Cabernet are? Don’t feel like a fool next time you look at a wine list in your favorite restaurant!

Merlot and Cabernet are popular wines, but they are not the same! Take a look at their differences.

What Is Merlot?

Merlot is one of the most popular red grapes in America and across the globe. It comes second only to Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot wine is easy to drink, soft, and elegant, which makes it versatile when paired with food.

The word Merlot is French for “the little blackbird.” Many believe that this grape first showed up when a French winemaker used it in his Bordeaux wine mix. The grape arrived in America in the 19th century, and it was not used as a mix anymore but on its own.

Merlot grapes can give up to 14% alcohol, and they grow better in warmer climates like Australia, California, and Chile. The taste is said to be sweet, resembling plums, with chocolate notes too. Unlike other wines, Merlot also has low tannin levels, reducing the risk for headaches.

Nutrition Facts

One glass (5 oz) of Merlot has the following nutritional content (*):

  • 122 calories
  • 127 g water
  • 0.103 g protein
  • 0g fat
  • 3.69 g carbohydrate

Which Merlot Is The Best?

There are various types of Merlot depending on the region of the world they come from. Not all types of Merlot will taste the same, as the climate and soil will impart a specific flavor. Some Merlots are fruity and sweet, while others are warmer and more aromatic.

Cool climate Merlots are more earthy and contain more tannins. These wines include those in France, Italy, and Chile. Merlots from these climate areas may be heavier and can be confused with Cabernet Sauvignon as well. You can also find notes of tobacco, vanilla, and chocolate.

When you look at Merlot from the Bourdeaux region of France, it contains 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 10 percent Cabernet Franc, and 70 percent Merlot. Italian Merlot is usually a blend, but the grapes tend to be larger, contributing to blends known as “super Tuscans.” Chilean Merlot tends to be the fruitiest of the cool climate zones.

On the other hand, warm climate, Merlot has a lighter body and is much fruitier. You can find these Merlot varieties in California, Australia, and Argentina. These wines have a lower tannin content and are softer to the mouth.

California Merlot is probably the most common and famous, whereas Napa Valley produces sweet, fruity, and slightly oaky kinds. Australian Merlot is relatively new, and it contains more notes of plum, cherry, and oak. Argentinian Merlots are also somewhat new, and they are silky and sweet.

When choosing wine, it is important to go with what you like. For more complex and heavy-bodied Merlot, go with those from colder climates, like Bourdeaux, Tuscany, or Chile. For a lighter, softer red wine, choose a Californian, Australian, or Argentinian Merlot.

What Is Cabernet Sauvignon?

Cabernet Sauvignon is a red grape known for its dark red color and full body. Like Merlot, this grape was found by accident when a red Cabernet Franc grape plant bred with a Sauvignon Blanc grape plant. This grape turned out to be extremely strong and resistant to all sorts of climates.

This grape became popular very quickly, especially because it contains a good level of tannins that allows it to be stable when bottled. By aging the wine in oak, this wine developed better flavors, a full body, and a medium-level acidity. With time, it was also mixed with Merlot grapes to create the famous Bordeaux blend.

By the 1970s, Cabernet Sauvignon had landed in California, where it quickly became very popular. Like Merlot, areas that cultivate this wine are Australia, Chile, and North America. Because it is stronger and more acidic, it goes better with food.

Nutrition Facts

One glass (5 oz) of Cabernet Sauvignon has the following nutritional content (*):

  • 122 calories
  • 127 g water
  • 0.103 g protein
  • 0g fat
  • 3.82 g carbohydrate

Which Cabernet Sauvignon Is The Best?

Like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon can have unique flavors and very distinct ones depending on the region where it is grown. Even though it is more astringent and full-bodied, this wine is also a bit sweet. Some of the common notes in Cabernet Sauvi include tobacco, truffle, chocolate, and black currants.

Other places in the world offer varieties of Merlot, such as Washington state in the U.S., where the wine tends to be medium-acid and heavier bodied. As for Chile, this South American country offers a lighter body and more fruity flavors. Finally, Australian merlots are a good mix of flavors and aromas, with rich fruit overtones.

This grape prefers hot climates, so it grows in the California region. Unlike France, California Cabernet Sauvignon is 100% pure and not usually a blend. You will get notes of dark berries, vanilla, and black pepper with this wine.

French Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are part of the production of the Bordeaux blend. The flavor is not as dry and mixes more fruity notes. It is not easy to find a pure Cabernet Sauvignon, but the flavors can be fruity and spicy.

Finally, Australian and Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon are becoming very famous. The grapes grow easily in these dry, almost desertic climates. These wines are rich, minty, and very well-balanced.

If you are looking for the best Cabernet Sauvignon, consider what you are going to pair it with. For a heavier meal, you may want to choose something from California or France. If you want a smooth drink and somewhat newer wine, go with an Australian or South American Cabernet Sauvignon.

What Are The Key Differences Between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon?

When it comes to merlot vs cabernet sauvignon, one of the main differences between these two wines is how they grow. Merlot grows better in clay and limestone-based soils, which are more common in cooler regions. Cabernet Sauvignon prefers hot climates and gravelly soil.

The production process of these wines is also a bit different, despite both coming from the same region of France. Merlot is aged in oak barrels, but the grapes have to be picked right when they ripen, or they will lose their acidity. Cabernet Sauvignon comes from a small, thick grape, which is then placed in oak barrels to age for a long period.

The acidity level will also vary for these two wines. Merlot has a low-medium acidity level, so some prefer it because of this. Cabernet Sauvignon is a medium-strong acidity level and thus may come across as stronger.

When you drink either of these wines, you will notice that their taste is not the same at all. Merlot is a lighter, fruitier wine that is easy to drink. Cabernet Sauvignon is much heavier, with earthy and bitter notes as well as acidity.

The final difference comes with pairing these wines, as they are vastly different in flavor. Merlot goes well with Italian dishes, especially those that feature tomatoes, as well as roasted vegetables, chicken, and cheeses. Because Cabernet Sauvignon is much heavier, it goes well with steak, duck, buffalo, stews, and dishes high in protein.

Cabernet vs MerlotMerlotCabernet Sauvignon
GrapeMerlot grapes are red and can grow in various climates.Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are small, dark, and grow well in hot climates.
Alcohol Content 13.5% to 14.5%13.5% to 14.5%
ColorDark red, with a light cherry color at the topDark ruby with a tinted magenta edge
Acidity MediumMedium to High
Taste and SmellThe taste is light, fruity, and slightly sweet. The aroma is of vanilla, cocoa, and cloves. The taste is acidic, a bit bitter, and slightly sweet. The aroma is earthy, minty, and warm. 
Food PairingsRoasted vegetables, tomato sauces, and lean meatsHeavy meats, like steak, dark and heavy sauces, and stews
Cost$15 to 30$15 to 35
Calories per 5 oz serving122 calories 122 calories 

Is Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon Healthier?

Alcohol is not healthy in large quantities, but red wine is high in antioxidants when consumed in moderate amounts. While both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon contain resveratrol and quercetin, two phytochemicals that act as antioxidants. These antioxidants protect against heart damage, inflammation, and possibly cancer (*).

Merlot also has resveratrol and quercetin, but in lower amounts, and it does contain more sugar. Cabernet Sauvignon contains less sugar and more antioxidant potency. With this in mind, Cabernet Sauvignon is a better choice to get all the benefits of red wine.

Both these wines are healthy, though, so consuming one or the other will not pose a health risk if done in moderation. Consider what you will be cooking and eating before you choose your wine too. For lighter meals, go with Merlot, but if eating a big piece of meat, Cabernet Sauvignon is the right choice.


Although they are not the same wine, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon do share some characteristics. Both these wines are complex, oaky, and slightly acidic. Consider the cabernet vs merlot differences mentioned here when you make your choice next time you are out to dinner.

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*image by igorr1/depositphotos

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