Merlot vs Pinot Noir: What’s the Difference?

pinot noir versus merlot -wine infographic

When it comes to wine appreciation, exploring classic options like Merlot and Pinot Noir won’t disappoint.

Merlot is a smooth red wine with ripe red fruit notes and hints of herbs and cocoa. Pinot Noir is an elegant red with bright red berries, cherry, and earthy undertones. You’ll find both wines at all price points wherever you buy your wines.

Merlot Basics: A Smooth Red

merlot wine profile infographic - merlot vs pinot noir

Hailing from Bordeaux, France, Merlot has earned widespread acclaim for its approachable nature. Today, it’s cultivated in numerous wine regions worldwide, including California, Italy, and Chile. Merlot presents a smooth and supple profile with soft tannins and delightful flavors of plum, cherry, and raspberry. It often features subtle herbal and cocoa notes, which are enhanced during aging in oak barrels.

Helpful Tip: Here’s a quick overview of the flavors that oak adds to wine.

As one of the most popular red wine choices, Merlot offers a wide array of options, catering to both everyday enjoyment and premium selections crafted by renowned producers.

Fun Wine Fact: Merlot gets its name from the local French dialect for the word ‘blackbird’.

Famed Merlot Winegrowing Regions:

  • Bordeaux AOC, France
  • Napa Valley AVA, California, USA
  • Tuscany, Italy
  • Central Valley, Chile
  • Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
  • Stellenbosch, South Africa

Pinot Noir Basics: An Elegant Red

pinot noir wine infographic - pinot noir vs Merlot

From Burgundy, France, Pinot Noir has gained worldwide popularity for its elegant and delicate character. Pinot Noir thrives in various regions like California, Oregon, and New Zealand. This wine typically exhibits a light to medium-bodied profile with bright flavors of red berries, cherry, and subtle earthiness. Its refined acidity and silky texture contribute to a well-balanced and enjoyable drinking experience.

Fun Wine Fact: Pinot Noir is known for being challenging to cultivate and vinify, but when done well, it produces exceptional wines. Its challenging nature to work with can make it more expensive than other wines.

Today, Pinot Noir is cherished globally for its quality and ability to reflect the unique terroir of its growing regions, making it a beloved red wine variety.

Famed Pinot Noir Winegrowing Regions:

  • Burgundy AOC, France
  • Willamette Valley AVA, Oregon, USA
  • Russian River Valley AVA, California, USA
  • Central Otago, New Zealand
  • Marlborough, New Zealand
  • Casablanca Valley, Chile
  • Mornington Peninsula, Australia

Wine Comparison: Merlot vs. Pinot Noir

Here’s a quick side-by-side comparison that highlights the main differences and similarities between Merlot and Pinot Noir.

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Merlot Wine Profile:

  • Sweetness: Most Merlots are dry, but inexpensive Merlots may have a little residual sugar.
  • Alcohol: Most Merlots have medium alcohol.
  • Acid: Expect Merlot to have medium acid, a little less than Pinot Noir.
  • Body: Merlot boasts a smooth and medium-bodied profile, complemented by soft tannins.
  • Flavor Profile: Enjoy delightful flavors of plum, cherry, raspberry, with hints of herbs and cocoa.
  • Tannins: Merlot typically features gentle tannins, contributing to its approachable and easy-drinking nature (typically more tannic than Pinot Noir)
  • Aging Potential: While some Merlots can age well, most are best enjoyed young to preserve their fresh fruit flavors.

Pinot Noir Wine Profile:

  • Sweetness: Most Pinot Noir wines are dry. Some inexpensive bottlings may be off-dry.
  • Body: Pinot Noir showcases an elegant and light to medium-bodied profile with a silky texture.
  • Alcohol: Like Merlot, Pinot Noir is medium alcohol
  • Acid: Expect Pinot Noir to medium to medium + acid, a little higher than Merlot, giving it a fresh fruit-forward profile.
  • Flavor Profile: Bright flavors of red berries, cherry, and an earthiness, maybe some mushroom or wet leafy notes.
  • Tannins: Pinot Noir grapes are thinner skinned than Merlot, and will have lighter tannins making it an approachable wine for new red wine drinkers.
  • Aging Potential: Some high-quality Pinot Noirs can age gracefully, but many are meant to be enjoyed relatively young.

Helpful Tip: If you’re just getting into red wine, check out this 30-second tasting tip on how to taste wine tannins.

Are Merlot and Pinot Noir Similar?

Merlot and Pinot Noir are both red wines with approachable profiles that showcase red fruits, like cherry and raspberry. Both wines are versatile and pair well with a variety of dishes, making them suitable choices for a range of occasions.

What Is the Difference Between Merlot and Pinot Noir?

Merlot has more tannin than Pinot Noir, and will taste more drying in your mouth. Merlot often has lower acid than Pinot Noir, giving it a rounder mouthfeel. Pinot Noir’s fruit will seem bright and juicy as you sip. Merlot’s fruit will taste ripe and lush.

Merlot Compared to Pinot Noir: Winemaking

pinot noir and merlot differences - vineyard

Pinot Noir is a more challenging grape in the winery than Merlot, and winemakers will often spend more time crafting Pinot Noir wines.

The winemaking process for Merlot involves removing the stems. Often, winemakers will use the grape stems or whole bunches when fermenting Pinot Noir to help add nutty spicy notes, along with some additional tannins.

Pinot Noir is a naturally thin-skinned grape, so winemakers will let the grape skins soak with the newly crushed juice to help with color extraction (getting more color). Winemakers commonly use oak for both Merlot and Pinot Noir, which adds flavors and shapes the wines.

Fun Wine Fact: The word for grape stems is rachis.

Merlot vs. Pinot Noir: Food Pairings and Serving Temperature

cream pasta - merlot and Pinot noir differences
A spaghetti carbonara will pair well with Pinot Noir. The bright acid and fruit will cut through the creamy, cheesy goodness.

Merlot’s smooth profile makes it a lovely choice for pairing with dishes like roasted chicken, pasta with red sauces, and soft cheeses. Merlot’s versatile nature also allows it to complement various grilled meats and flavorful vegetarian dishes.

Pinot Noir’s elegant character makes it an excellent partner for dishes like salmon, risottos, pork tenderloin, and mushroom-based dishes. It also pairs well with charcuterie and dishes that feature truffles.

Helpful Pinot Pairing Tip: If you think your dish would pair well with cranberry jelly, it will pair with Pinot Noir. Thanksgiving turkey, anyone?

Merlot and Pinot Noir Serving Temperature

WineIdeal Serving TemperatureDecanting
MerlotSlightly below room temperature (around 60-65°F or 15-18°C)Not necessary for most Merlots; let it breathe in the glass to open up flavors.
Pinot NoirSlightly cooler than room temperature (around 55-60°F or 12-15°C)Not typically necessary, but swirling in the glass can enhance aromas.
  • Most Merlot wines do not require decanting, but swirling the wine in the glass can help aerate it and release its aromas.
  • Pinot Noir, being delicate, does not typically require decanting but can benefit from swirling to amplify its aromas.

If you’re enjoying high-end Pinots or Merlots that are aged, you may need to decant the wines for 20-30 minutes.

Discover: Pinot Noir Cheese Pairing Guide

Which Is More Expensive, Merlot vs. Pinot Noir?

Considering the prices of Merlot and Pinot Noir, it’s always helpful to compare prices.

Merlot Cost

  • Entry-level Merlot wines range from $10 to $15 per bottle, offering great value for everyday enjoyment.
  • Premium Merlots from renowned regions or esteemed wineries can range from $30 to $80 or more.

Pinot Noir Wine Cost

  • Entry-level Pinot Noir wines are typically priced between $10 to $ 15 per bottle, offering approachable options.
  • Premium and top-tier Pinot Noirs can range from $35 to $100 or higher, reflecting their exceptional craftsmanship.

Helpful Tip: Curious about how a bottle of wine gets its price? Here’s everything you need to know about wine bottle pricing.

Which Is Better: Merlot or Pinot Noir?

If you enjoy a smooth and approachable red wine with flavors of plum and cherry and a fuller body, Merlot is an excellent option. If you prefer an elegant and delicate red with bright red berry flavors and a lighter body, then you’ll love Pinot Noir.

Final Thoughts – Merlot or Pinot Noir?

Both Merlot and Pinot Noir offer delicious options with distinct personalities.

  • Hosting a side-by-side tasting can be an enjoyable way to explore and appreciate the differences between these two wines.
  • Grab two similarly priced bottles of Merlot and Pinot Noir, invite friends, and conduct your own tasting session.

Merlot presents a smooth and versatile wine, celebrated for its accessible nature and fruit-forward flavors. Pinot Noir, with its elegant charm and vibrant acidity, offers a refreshing and nuanced choice for various occasions.

Discover More:
Merlot vs Chardonnay
Merlot vs Cabernet Sauvignon
Merlot vs Malbec
Sangiovese vs Merlot
Malbec vs Pinot Noir
Merlot vs Pinot Grigio

Thirsty for More?

If you’re eager to delve further into the world of wine, consider hosting a blind wine tasting for beginners.

Still figuring out what wine is what? Check out Merlot vs. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vs Malbec.

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