Both Merlot and Malbec make approachable, food-friendly red wines. But what’s the difference between them?
Merlot, a Bordeaux grape, produces soft, elegant wines with red berries and plum. Malbec, Argentina’s signature grape, creates deeper, fuller-bodied wines with blueberry, blackberry, and black cherry notes. Both pair well with hearty dishes, but Malbec’s fuller body and firm tannins excel with spicy, rich meats like BBQ and Mexican food.
Merlot and Malbec are both popular wines, but they have some key differences in terms of their history and characteristics.
Here’s what you need to know about Merlot vs. Malbec and which is better.
- Where Is Merlot from?
- Where Is Malbec from?
- What’s the Difference Between Merlot and Malbec Wines?
- What Is Sweeter Merlot or Malbec?
- What Is Better Merlot or Malbec?
- Is Malbec or Merlot Heavier?
- Which Foods Pair Best with Merlot?
- Which Foods Pair Best with Malbec?
- Final Thoughts – Malbec vs Merlot
- Thirsty for More?
Where Is Merlot from?
Originally from the Bordeaux region in France, Merlot is now one of the most widely planted grape varieties in the world. The Merlot comes from the local dialect for blackbird and is believed to reference the wine’s soft nature as a black grape making elegant red wines.
Today, Merlot is the principal grape used in Right Bank Bordeaux wines in St. Emilion AOC and Pomerol AOC.
Fun Wine Fact: The iconic Petrus wine of Pomerol AOC is 100% Merlot and costs upwards of $5,000 USD per bottle.
Takeaway: Merlot is capable of making world-class wines.
Today, Merlot’s grown around the world.
Where Is Malbec from?
Malbec, on the other hand, originated in the southwest of France in the Cahors region, but it is most commonly associated with Argentina, where it was first introduced in the mid-19th century by European immigrants.
You’ll find Malbec made in all major winegrowing regions, including throughout the US, Australia, Italy, and Chile, but Argentina remains the world’s leader in Malbec wines.
What’s the Difference Between Merlot and Malbec Wines?
Merlot is known for its soft rich fruit that forefronts plum. It has a medium body and ruby-colored core. Malbec is known for its deep, dark inky purple color and full-bodied flavor with blackberry and blueberry flavors.
Malbec has more pronounced tannins that are firm and chewier compared to Merlot’s velvety tannins. Both have rich fruit flavors that range from dark fruits like black cherry to red fruits like plum accented by notes of cocoa, spices, and sometimes vanilla if the winemaker used oak during the winemaking process.
Helpful Tip: Check out this post that covers everything you need to know about oak and winemaking.
What Is Sweeter Merlot or Malbec?
Merlot may taste a bit sweeter than Malbec thanks to Merlot’s softer tannins, which can result in a wine that is smooth and easy to drink, with a hint of sweetness to the fruit. Both Merlot and Malbec are dry red wines and, generally, neither wine is considered sweet. Because Malbec grapes have a higher tannin content, Malbec wines can seem drier compared to Merlot, even if both wines are dry.
It’s worth noting that sweetness can vary depending on the specific winemaking techniques used, or even the region where the grapes are grown.
Inexpensive, entry-level red wines often have sugar or unfermented grape juice added to them to appeal to a broader consumer market. Who knew? Now you do!
Helpful Tip: Here’s a full rundown of sweetness in wine that’s useful if you’re trying to figure out if you’re wine’s sweet (or not).
What Is Better Merlot or Malbec?
If you prefer lighter red wines that have softer tannins (smoother), then Merlot will be a better wine for you. Malbec has more structure and is better for pairing with foods that have a stronger flavor profile, like smoked meats, spice rubs, and hard cheeses. Malbec’s fuller-body and intense profile can stand up to robust flavors.
Helpful Tip: Go check out this full post on Merlot wine.
Is Malbec or Merlot Heavier?
Malbec wines tend to be heavier than Merlot thanks to Malbec’s more structured tannin profile. Malbec wines are considered full-bodied, and Merlot is a medium-bodied wine. Of course, the growing region and winemaking style can influence body, but in general, Mablec is heavier than Merlot.
Helpful Wine Shopping Tip: Hotter growing climates help grapes accumulate more sugar. More sugar, means more alcohol. Higher alcohol wines have more body. So, a high-alcohol Merlot (14.6% ABV), will be heavier than a lower-alcohol Malbec (12.5% ABV). Reading wine labels can help you pick out the wine style you want: heavier or lighter?
Which Foods Pair Best with Merlot?
One of the best things going for Merlot is that it’s such a food-friendly red wine. Here are some Merlot wine pairing ideas to get you started:
- Merlot and Meat Paring: Merlot’s soft tannins and rich fruit flavors make it a great match for meat, like grilled steak, roasted lamb, herbed pork roasts
- Merlot and Poultry Pairing: Merlot pairs well with poultry such as roasted chicken and cornish game hens, particularly when they are prepared with savory sauces and herb rubs
- Merlot and Pasta Pairing: Pair Merlot with pasta dishes that have hearty sauces like spaghetti and meatballs or ravioli. Merlot also works with creamy alfredo and tangy pesto sauces.
- Merlot and Cheese Pairing: Merlot’s plummy fruit flavors complement soft cheeses, such as Brie and Camembert, and work well with stronger-flavored cheeses like blue cheese or asiago.
- Merlot and Vegetable Pairing: Merlot pairs with grilled and roasted vegetables, particularly those with a natural sweetness, such as peppers, carrots, and cauliflower.
Helpful Tip: Go check out this full list of foods that work well with Merlot wine.
Which Foods Pair Best with Malbec?
Malbec, more so than Merlot, appreciates hearty, robust flavors in food. Here are a few Malbec wine pairing ideas to spark your kitchen creativity:
- Malbec and Grilled Meat Pairing: Malbec’s rich, dark fruited profile and firm tannins make this wine a brilliant match for grilled meats, like BBQ, steak, and hamburgers (vegan burgers work, too!). Add a spice rub or smoke your meat for an added layer of flavorful goodness.
- Malbec and Mexican Pairing: Malbec’s bold flavors complement spicy dishes like taquitos, nachos, and enchiladas.
- Malbec and Stew or Casserole Pairing: Malbec’s full-body and rich tannins make it an amazing wine to pair with rich casseroles and stews made with beef, pork, or lamb. Think pasties and shepherd’s pie.
- Malbec and Cheese Pairing: Pair your Malbe wine with strong, bold cheeses like aged or smoked cheddar, blue cheese, or gouda.
- Malbec and Vegetable Pairing: Malbec works with grilled veggies similar to Merlot; choose vegetables that have some natural sugar to them like carrots, beets, and onions.
As with all wine and food pairings, you’re aiming to compliment the flavors in your Malbec or Merlot with the flavors in your dish. Experiment with wines made by different producers to unlock that perfect pairing combination.
And most importantly, drink what you like and enjoy it with the food you like.
Helpful Tip: If you’re just getting started out with wine, I put together this helpful overview of food with wine pairing to get you started. Side note – I spend just as much time thinking about food with wine pairing as I do deciding what I’m going to eat every night. Utter hedonism. What can I say?
Final Thoughts – Malbec vs Merlot
Malbec wines offer a structured, powerful red wine drinking experience. If you love big reds, or are serving a hearty meal, then stick with Malbec. If you prefer softer red wines, then look for a bottle of Merlot. Each wine brings its own personal profile to your glass.
The best way to get started with these two wines is by doing a side-by-side comparison.
Pick up two bottles of similarly-priced wines:
- 1 bottle of Malbec and
- 1 bottle of Merlot.
Pour yourself a glass of each, side-by-side, and taste them slowly.
Think about these 3 questions:
- Can you see the difference in color? (Malbec should be darker and more purple)
- Can you feel the difference in the wine’s weight in your mouth? (Malbec should be heavier – but check the ABV in both bottles)
- Can you tease out the different fruit flavors?
This is the best way to understand the differences between these two beloved wine grapes.
Thirsty for More?
And here’s a helpful 30-second tasting tip on how to taste wine tannins, which is super important (and relatively simple to do) when trying to figure out the differences between Malbec vs. Merlot.