Merlot vs Zinfandel


When it comes to red wines, comparing Merlot vs Zinfandel makes sense. These are two widely available (and popular) red wines.

Zinfandel is fuller-bodied with higher alcohol and tannin than Merlot. Zin has raisin notes. Merlot has a medium body, tannins, and alcohol, and plum notes.

TL;DR: Zinfandel’s a bigger wine than Merlot. If you love the soft, easy-going nature of Merlot, you may not care for Zinfandel.

Here’s what you need to know about Merlot vs Zinfandel.

Merlot Basics: Approachable Elegance

what does merlot wine taste like - merlot vs zinfandel

Originating from Bordeaux, France, Merlot has gained global recognition for its approachable and versatile nature. Today, closely associated with renowned wine regions like Napa Valley and Tuscany, Merlot presents a mellow flavor profile with notes of ripe berries, rich plum, and a touch of vanilla. It is celebrated for its medium body and silky tannins, offering a smooth and easy-to-enjoy experience. (Here’s a deep-dive into Merlot wines.)

Fun Wine Fact: Merlot often plays a significant role in Bordeaux blends, contributing softer tannins and rich plum notes.

Zinfandel Wine Basics: A Big Red Wine

what does zinfandel taste like infographic - zinfandel vs merlot

Zinfandel, or Zin, is most at home in California’s warmer growing climates, like Paso Robles, parts of Sonoma, and Lodi. Zinfandel is a late, uneven-ripening grape, meaning that you can get fresh fruit flavors, jammy flavors, and even raisin flavors in your wine, giving it layered complexity. Zinfandel’s known for its full body and higher-alcohol wines. (Check out this comprehensive guide to Zinfandel wine.)

Fun Wine Fact: Zinfandel goes by Primitivo in Italy.

Wine Comparison: Merlot vs. Zinfandel

Here’s a quick side-by-side that covers the most common styles of Merlot and Zinfandel.

HueMedium Ruby to GarnetDeep purple to inky black
AromasPlum, red berries, blackberry, herbalJammy blackberry, cherry, raisin
TanninsMedium – softMedium – Medium plus
Alcohol (%)13-15%14-17%
Key Growing RegionsBordeaux, France, CaliforniaCalifornia, Italy
Classic PairingsPasta, chicken, soft cheesesGrilled meats, barbecue, pizza
Price Range$10-$30+$15-$50+

Merlot Wine Profile

  • Sweetness: Merlot wines are typically produced in a dry style, offering minimal residual sugar.
  • Alcohol: Merlot wines generally have a moderate to high alcohol content, ranging from around 13% to 15% ABV, lower than Zinfandel.
  • Body: Known for its medium body, Merlot has a plush, rounded mouthfeel.
  • Tannins: Merlot wines often have smooth tannins that make it an approachable red wine for new wine drinkers, softer than Zinfandel.
  • Acid: Merlot has medium acid levels, similar or slightly lower than Zinfandel.
  • Flavor and Aroma Intensity: Most Merlot wines have medium intensity on the nose, with plum, blackberry, cherry, and notes of mocha and vanilla if oaked.

Zinfandel Wine Profile

  • Sweetness: Zinfandel is almost always made in a dry style unless it is an inexpensive bulk wine; higher alcohol Zinfandels (16%+) may have a little residual sugar because the yeast couldn’t ferment the wine dry.
  • Alcohol: Zinfandel wines are typically high alcohol, sometimes a little higher than Pinotage, ranging from around 13% to 16% ABV.
  • Acid: Zinfandel tends to have medium acid to medium plus acid.
  • Body: Zinfandel boasts a bold and full-bodied profile thanks in part to its high alcohol.
  • Tannins: Zinfandel tends to have medium to medium plus tannins, slightly higher than Merlot.
  • Flavor and Aroma Intensity: Rich flavors of jammy blackberry, black plum, cherry, raisin, and black currant.

Fun Wine Fact: Zinfandel is an uneven ripening grape. This means that not all of the berries will ripen at the same time, leaving some to raisinate on the bunch, while others barely ripe. This gives Zinfandel a jammy and raisinated profile while still having medium acid levels.

Are Merlot and Zinfandel Similar?

Merlot and Zinfandel share red and black fruit. Both wines can be crafted using oak aging to give toast, mocha, coffee, and spice notes.

Helpful Tip: Here’s what oak contributes to wine.

What Is the Difference Between Merlot and Zinfandel?

Zinfandel tends to have a fuller body and bolder flavors, compared to Merlot’s softer and more mellow profile. Zinfandel often showcases jammy fruit characteristics and peppery notes, while Merlot leans towards ripe berries and a touch of vanilla. Additionally, Zinfandel has a higher alcohol content.

Merlot vs. Zinfandel Winemaking

Merlot’s often used in red wine blends with Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Malbect. These are the classic characters that go into Bordeaux wine. Zin isn’t traditionally a blending grape, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find Zin blended with different grapes (maybe even Merlot!).

Merlot vs. Zinfandel: Food Pairings and Serving Temperature

slider - merlot vs zinfandel

Merlot’s smooth and velvety character makes it a versatile partner for various dishes, including roasted meats, pasta, and soft cheeses. Zinfandel, with its boldness and peppery notes, pairs exceptionally well with barbecue, spicy dishes, and aged cheeses.

Personal Note: I love Zinfandel with a classic barbecue pulled pork sandwich.

Both Merlot and Zinfandel are best enjoyed slightly below room temperature. Allow them to breathe for at least 30 minutes before serving. For Zinfandel, consider decanting to enhance its flavors.

Discover More:
Merlot Cheese Pairing Guide
Merlot Meat Pairing Guide
Merlot Vegetarian Pairing Guide

Which Is More Expensive, Merlot vs. Zinfandel?

When comparing the prices of Merlot and Zinfandel, it’s natural to wonder about how much each costs.

Merlot Cost

  • Entry-level Merlot wines are often priced between $4 and $10 per bottle, offering accessible options for everyday enjoyment.
  • Mid-priced Merlot’s will go for $10-$15
  • If you’re looking for premium selections from renowned producers or specific regions, prices can range from $15 to $30 or more.

See: How Much Should You Pay for a Bottle of Merlot Wine

Zinfandel Cost

  • Zinfandel wines are widely available at various price points. You’ll find budget-friendly Zinfandel starting around $5 USD, similar to Merlot. These wines, while more affordable, are typically made in an off-dry (slightly sweet) style.
  • Zinfandel starts to get interesting around $18-$20 USD.
  • Premium Zinfandel wines sourced from old vines and historic vineyards will cost you around $45-$65 USD.

Which Is Better, Merlot or Zinfandel?

If you prefer a smoother, medium-bodied red wine, Merlot is the better choice. For those who enjoy bold, jammy flavors and a fuller-bodied, high-alcohol experience, Zinfandel is the better choice.

Personal Note: I’m not a big Zinfandel drinker. They have a time and place, but I drink a lot of wine and 16%-17% alcohol wines are hard on my poor body. So much so, that I frequently miss Zinfandel on blind-tasting challenges. Oh well. :/

Final Thoughts – Merlot vs Zinfandel?

Both Merlot and Zinfandel provide very different red wine options. These are two wines where you’ll want to do a side-by-side tasting to fully appreciate just how different they are. Grab two bottles of similarly priced Merlot and Zinfandel, gather some friends, and indulge in an evening of swirling and sipping.

Merlot’s softer and more approachable nature makes it an excellent choice for everyday enjoyment, while Zinfandel, with its bold and robust profile, is perfect for those seeking a more intense and flavorful experience. And maybe that’s you!

Thirsty for More?

I’m a firm believer in enhancing your wine knowledge through side-by-side tastings.

I’m a big believer in doing side-by-side tastings to boost your wine knowledge. Here’s how to host your own wine tasting for beginners.

Check out this post on Merlot vs. Pinot Noir, another popular red wine comparison, along with Shiraz vs. Malbec.

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