Pinot Noir vs Cabernet Sauvignon vs Merlot: Which Red Wine Is For Me?

Getting into red wines can be a challenging experience because they all have different taste profiles. For example, a Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, or a Merlot look very similar in a way that reality does not support once you start to examine them.

In other words, they all taste quite differently and come from very different backgrounds. So let’s examine these three wines to make your next purchase easier to handle.

Man choosing from a selction of wines in a store

Differences Between Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot

These three wines are some of the most popular in the world but are quite different in a variety of different ways.

The most significant differences lie within their overall body, taste, and sweetness. Let’s break down these varying differences to give you a better understanding of your choices here.

First, a good Pinot Noir can be considered a medium-bodied wine that creates a variety of fruity aftertastes and flavors. This drink’s higher level of tannins produces many different aromas and taste sensations that make it an exciting option to consider for many people.

By contrast, a Cabernet Sauvignon is typically much bolder with even more tannins. The overall color is typically a darker red with a more decadent array of different fruity flavors.

Pinot Noir is good if you want a simple wine, but Cabernet brings a more complex structure that will reward more observant wine drinkers.

Merlot wines provide an excellent alternative to these two wines, softer and more subtle. They lack the intensity of flavors familiar with a Cabernet Sauvignon but give an overall smoother experience than a Pinot Noir. The overall result should please just about any wine fan.

Interestingly, these wines have a reasonably similar origin and should, in theory, come across very similarly.

However, they remain pretty different in a way that deserves a deeper dive. So let’s break down a few critical elements that differentiate these common and popular wine varieties.

Origins of These 3 Wines

The origin of these wines shows the importance of regional differences in grape production and harvesting.

All three come from France (big shock, considering the names) but have very different histories that center heavily around the regions they originated and cultivated.

For example, did you know that Pinot Noir is perhaps the oldest wine in the world?

Any Pinot fan has probably told you that a dozen times. But it is true! They can be traced back to the Burgundy region, where records show monks created Pinot Noir wine as early as 1000 A.D.

This history contrasts heavily with Cabernet Sauvignon, created in Bordeaux after winemakers accidentally mixed Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. The result was an outstanding wine that quickly became one of the most famous wine types in the world.

Merlot’s history also started in Bordeaux in 1784, when a local Bordeaux official named a batch of grapes “merlau”.

This name makes it one of the few wines named after a bird, as merlau is the French word for blackbird: a hungry bird of these species was chowing on those particular grapes when they were named.

These fun and engaging histories are just part of the story behind these wines. It is also essential to understand the nature of each grape type, as this can significantly affect the quality and taste of your wine.

Here’s what you need to know about this important information before buying a bottle of wine.

Grape Details

Pinot Noir grapes are a rich black color reflected in its name: noir means “black” in French. The term “Pinot” refers to the unique way these grapes grow, as they develop in pinecone-style clusters that make them easy to pick.

However, they’re challenging to grow and typically need a balanced environment around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Common growing regions include France, Chile, Australia, and Oregon.

Pinot Noir grapes freshly picked in a barrel
Pinot Noir grapes grow clustered tightly together in a pincone shape.

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are much more adaptable and can grow in various regions. They come with thicker skin (literally) and lighter colors than the Pinot grape. As a result, they are easier to grow and harvest, creating a broad range of different wines.

Therefore, Cabernet Sauvignon wines are often more plentiful and cheaper than Pinot Noir wines.

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on a vine close up
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes have a distinctive thick skin.

Merlot grapes are a dark blue and cluster more loosely than Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir grapes. This lighter clustering gives each grape more room to grow, which helps them expand in unexpected ways.

As a result, they typically do well in warmer climates and shouldn’t be grown in colder areas. That said, they’re tougher than Pinot grapes and easier to grow and develop with minimal difficulties.

Merlot Grapes loosely clusterd on a vine
Merlot grapes do not cluster as closely as Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

Color And Appearance Of These Wines

We’ve touched a little on the color and appearance of these wine grapes. But let’s talk about the wine itself!

Red Wine in a glass being held and examined closeup
Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wine have distinct color and transparency differences.

How can you tell the difference between them in a glass? Pinot Noir has the lightest color and creates a nearly transparent look. Compared to the other two wines, it should have a more straightforward overall look in your glass, and likely doesn’t cause much confusion in its taste profiles.

By contrast, a Merlot is darker, creating a nearly purplish look and color profile. You may notice how the light flickers off your Merlot when it hits it properly. That’s because its denser color reflects light rather than absorbs it.

That said, it is nowhere near as dark as Cabernet, which looks a bit like a melted ruby floating in your glass. The overall texture should be more profound and more straightforward, as well.

Consistency will vary quite heavily between each of these wines.

Pinot rims will have a nearly watery texture that is hard to mistake. By contrast, the Cabernet Sauvignon will have a rich purple rim deeper than Merlot. Some Merlots, however, may have an orange hue when hit just right by the sun.

These superficial differences help to make them easier to tell apart when drinking.

Flavor Profiles

When you pour a glass of each of these wines, you’ll find that each has a pretty diverse taste profile.

But, if you know your wine, you’ll never mistake these three! Merlot is probably the most subtle and easy to enjoy because it has minimal tannins and lower acidity with an overall fruity taste. Expect lingering flavors of black cherry and even mocha with this wine. Try a Merlot if you’re just getting into wine.

Cabernet is the strongest of these wines and is a heavy contrast to Merlot. It contains a high level of tannins and produces a very staggering array of different flavor profiles.

For example, it is not uncommon to get a little taste of oak, vanilla, licorice, and tobacco in your wine. Cabernet Sauvignon is for the more severe wine fan with experience tasting some of the harsher wines on the market.

Interestingly, Pinot Noir takes the middle ground in taste usually occupied by Merlot when comparing these three wines. You’ll get a more potent flavor and higher tannins than you’d get in a Merlot, creating a more decadent array of fruity and even nutty aftertastes.

However, you won’t be quite as overwhelmed as you may be with a Cabernet Sauvignon. In this way, Pinot works well as a transition wine to more potent flavors.

Aromas

Woman smelling the aroma of red wine during a wine tasting
Sniffing is where you can really notice the differences between Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Make sure to smell your wine before taking a sip to experience the full sensations that these three wines have to offer.

Half of the fun of drinking a glass of red wine is reveling in the fantastic aromas you get from each glass. There’s a reason why professional wine drinkers sniff their glass before taking a sip: they need to get the full experience. Thankfully, each of these wines has a pretty distinct smell.

When taking a sniff of Pinot Noir, you’ll find yourself noticing raspberries, cherries, and strawberries. These fruity aromas make it a more accessible wine for many people to enjoy. Even better, you’ll likely get a spicy underlying smell that helps Pinot Noir feel more down to earth than other options.

Merlot takes the fruity smells of Pinot and amps them up to a new level. You’ll get a blend of various red and black fruits with this wine, including plum, black cherry, raspberry, and even pomegranates! Depending on how long your Merlot aged, you may even get a smell of olive or peppers.

As expected, Cabernet Sauvignon has the most potent aromas of all three of these wines. Their smell can be pretty overpowering and may include dark plums, hints of black currants, cherries, chocolate, eucalyptus, and pepper. These smells give you a broad array of taste undertones.

Dryness And Sweetness

When examining these three wines, it is crucial to know whether they are dry or sweet. Typically, all three wines are considered dry, despite their sometimes fruity flavors. Higher levels of tannins in each help create a reasonably dry option for most people.

Typically, Cabernet Sauvignon is considered the driest type, which suits its overall more potent taste reputation. Drier wines like this are often a bit harder for new wine drinkers to enjoy.

However, Pinot Noir can serve as an excellent middle ground due to its slightly sweeter flavor.

By contrast, Merlot is the sweetest option and lacks the kind of overwhelming tannins typical in the other two types. However, it still has almost no residual sugar and is still reasonably high in alcohol content. This may make it a good option for those trying to enjoy wine for the first time.

General Affordability

The popularity and easy cultivation of Cabernet Sauvignon makes it one of the least expensive wines on the market. Anticipate costs of no more than $15-20 per bottle, depending on how long it has been aged. You might even find bottles for cheaper, though the quality will be lower.

Merlot is usually a little more than Cabernet Sauvignon because it is just slightly less easy to grow. But, honestly, you can probably find a bottle within the same price range, thankfully. Sometimes, you may pay as little as $10 per bottle, though we find that this price range may indicate lower quality.

The harder-to-grow Pinot Noir wine will create a more costly wine option that will require a bit more investment. The overall quality may vary depending on the price but expect to pay at least $20 for a bottle. Depending on the vintage and the manufacturer, you may pay as high as $50.

The Best Food Pairings For Pinot Noir vs. Cabernet Sauvignon vs. Merlot

Red meat and rice on a plate served with red wine closeup
Last but not least, foods to pair with these three wines can range a bit. Check below to find out more.

When picking a wine, you need to understand the food pairings. After all, who doesn’t want to blend a Merlot with a meal that highlights the overall taste?

Here’s our breakdown of the best food pairings possible for these three different wine options:

  • Pinot Noir – Pair a Pinot with various types of meat, including chicken, turkey, pork, salmon, and lamb, as well as mushrooms, broccoli, and more. This wine works perfectly for most fried meals.
  • Merlot – Like Pinot, Merlot goes well with various types of meat: particularly lamb and beef. Some milder cheese may blend well with Merlot (cheddar), but potent options (blue cheese) do not.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon – A Cabernet goes perfectly with rich red-meat foods. You may find yourself loving this wine paired with hamburgers, delicious steak, and vegetable-heavy meals.

Which Of These 3 Red Wines Is Right For Me?

When you’re picking between these three wines, you may feel a bit overwhelmed by the information above. However, don’t let it affect your confidence!

If you’re clever about how you approach your research and trust in our tasting notes, you should have little difficulty finding a wine that you enjoy. To minimize confusion, let’s break down who each wine may appeal to the most.

For example, if you’re a beginner and want something that feels a bit lighter and easier to approach, Pinot Noir may be a good choice for you.

Though the cost may be higher than anticipated, the overall fruitiness and taste profile should make it easier to tolerate. We particularly love how richly sweet this wine can taste without a lot of residual sugar: that kind of elegance makes it an excellent option for many.

However, Cabernet Sauvignon may be the better option if you want a wine that will just knock your socks off with its complexity and depth. Its high level of tannins and overall potency blend well with people who have a lot of experience with wine.

In a certain way, it’s like the dark beer or IPA of the wine world. Some people like it, but others will find it far too strong.

Lastly, a great bottle of Merlot works as a middle ground between these two options. It has fruity flavors but a slightly more complex array of aromas and aftertastes.

However, it won’t overwhelm you in the same way you may experience with a Cabernet Sauvignon. As a result, you may want this option if Pinot seems a bit too basic or if you want a wine with a sweet taste that doesn’t overwhelm you.

Emma Miller

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