Pinotage vs Merlot: Very Different Red Wines


When it comes to red wines, some are more mainstream, like Merlot, and others take you by surprise, like Pinotage.

Pinotage showcases a robust body and distinctive notes of dark berries, coffee, and a hint of smokiness, differing from the softer and fruit-forward nature of Merlot. Merlot is more common and available at all price points, from entry-level to luxury.

These wines provide an exciting opportunity for red wine enthusiasts. Here’s what you need to know about Pinotage vs Merlot.

Pinotage Basics: A Bold South African Gem

pinotage wine profile - pinotage vs Merlot

Pinotage, hailing from South Africa, isn’t as widely known as other red wines. Often associated with regions like Stellenbosch and Paarl, Pinotage offers a robust flavor profile with pronounced dark fruit notes and a subtle earthiness. Pinotage is well-known for its full body, similar to Syrah. (For a deeper dive into Pinotage wines, explore here.)

Fun Wine Fact: Pinotage is a new wine grape that’s only been around for about 100 years.

Merlot Basics: A Smooth International Operator

pinotage vs merlot - merlot wine grape profile

Merlot is an international variety planted in major winegrowing regions around the world. Originally from the Bordeaux region of France, today you’ll find Merlot grown in California, Australia, Chile, Argentina, Italy, Spain, and many more countries. Merlot offers a medium to full body with velvety tannins. (Here’s a comprehensive guide to Merlot wine.)

Fun Wine Fact: Merlot is often used in Bordeaux red wine blends, contributing to softness and fruitiness.

Wine Comparison: Pinotage vs. Merlot

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

Characteristics Pinotage Merlot
Hue Deep red to black Ruby red to garnet
Color Red Red
Aromas Dark fruit, coffee, smoky Plum, black cherry, herbal
Tannins High Soft to moderate
Acid Medium (-) to Medium Medium
Alcohol (%) 13-15% 13-15%
Body Full Medium to full
Intensity Pronounced Moderate to pronounced
Key Growing Regions South Africa France, Italy, California
Classic Pairings Grilled meats,BBQ, tacos, chili Beef, lamb, pasta
Price Range $15-$40 $15-$50

Pinotage Wine Profile

  • Sweetness: Pinotage is usually made in a dry style.
  • Alcohol: Pinotage wines generally have a moderate to high alcohol content, ranging from around 13% to 15% ABV.
  • Body: Known for its medium (+) to full body, fuller than Merlot.
  • Tannins: Pinotage tends to have firmer tannins than Merlot, contributing to its structure and aging potential.
  • Flavors: The flavor profile often includes dark berries, coffee, and a hint of smokiness, meat, or leather.

Merlot Wine Profile

  • Sweetness: Merlot wines lean towards dry, but inexpensive Merlot wines often have a little residual sugar and sweetness to them.
  • Alcohol: Merlot wines typically have a moderate alcohol content, similar to Pinotage, ranging from around 13% to 15% ABV.
  • Body: Merlot is known for its medium to full body, but typically lighter than Pinotage.
  • Tannins: Merlot tends to have softer tannins that are riper than Pinotage.
  • Flavors: The flavor profile often includes red and black fruits, with notes of plum, cherry, and a touch of vanilla.

Helpful Tip: If you’re unsure about serving temperatures, here’s a breakdown of wine serving temperatures for different wine styles and occasions.

Are Pinotage and Merlot Similar?

Pinotage and Merlot are both red wines made in a dry style. Both Pinotage and Merlot will have plum and cherry notes.

What Is the Difference Between Pinotage and Merlot?

Pinotage and Merlot are very different wines. Pinotage has more structure, tannin, and body than Merlot. Pinotage has more non-fruit aromas and flavors, like meat, smoke, leather, and rubber. Pinotage will be darker in the glass than Merlot.

Pinotage vs Merlot Winemaking

Both Pinotage and Merlot can be oaked to give the wines toast, vanilla, or mocha flavors. Pinotage is much harder to work with in the winery than Merlot, and winemakers need to be careful with fermentation temperatures. If not monitored closely, Pinotage can come off as rubbery and pretty nasty.

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

Pinotage vs Merlot: Food Pairings and Serving Temperature

merlot vs pinotage - hamburger

Pinotage’s bold and robust character makes it an excellent companion for hearty dishes, grilled meats, and flavorful cheeses. Merlot, with its smooth and velvety texture, pairs well with a range of dishes, including roasted poultry, pasta, and mild cheeses.

Both Pinotage and Merlot are best enjoyed at a slightly cool temperature. Place them in the refrigerator for about 10-15 minutes before serving.

Note: You may need to decant both Pinotage and Merlot if they are made in a fuller-bodied style. If your wine seems closed when you first take a sip, give it a good swirl or let it sit for about 10 minutes to see if it opens up.

Discover More:
Merlot Cheese Pairing Guide
Merlot Meat Pairing Guide

Which Is More Expensive, Pinotage vs Merlot?

Pinotage and Merlot differ in price points on the export market. Pinotage isn’t as widely available as Merlot, but entry-level Pinotage does exist depending on where you live in the world.

Pinotage Cost

Entry-level Pinotage wines are generally affordable, ranging from $10 to $18 per bottle. Premium Pinotage wines can reach higher price points, around $25 to $40, offering more complexity and depth.

Helpful Wine Buying Tip: Pinotage is one of those wines where you always want to purchase the more expensive bottle. Because of how challenging it is to work with, poorly made Pinotage is truly awful. Check out more in the full Pinotage guide.

Merlot Cost

Merlot is widely available at all price points. You’ll find extreme value Merlots staring under $5 USD. These Merlots will typically have a little sweetness to them and be perfect for new red wine drinkers. Merlot gets interesting around $15 USD. These wines are known for their smooth and approachable nature, perfect for casual sipping and pairing.

On the premium side, Merlot will have more nuanced flavors and aging potential. Premium Merlot wines sourced from renowned regions can range from $25 to $50 or more.

Helpful Tip: Here’s how much you should be paying for a bottle of Merlot.

Which Is Better, Pinotage or Merlot?

If you enjoy bold and robust red wines with tannin, meat, and tobacco, Pinotage is the better choice for you. If you prefer a smoother and more approachable style, Merlot is the better option. If you’re on a strict wine budget, Merlot is more affordable than Pinotage in most markets.

Final Thoughts – Pinotage or Merlot?

pinotage vs merlot - wine bottles

I love both Pinotage and Merlot and keep bottles of both wines in my cellar. In my opinion, you need to think about what bottles you’re going to buy and how you’re going to pair Pinotage much more carefully than Merlot. Merlot wines are easier to find and are generally quite quaffable regardless of the label or price point.

Pinotage isn’t a wine for a new wine drinker who is still trying to figure out if they even like red wines. Merlot is. Which are you?

I always recommend organizing a side-by-side tasting to fully appreciate the differences between these two wines. Grab two bottles of similarly priced Pinotage and Merlot, invite friends over, and enjoy an evening of swirling and sipping.

Thirsty for More?

I believe in enhancing your wine knowledge through side-by-side tastings. Here’s a guide on how to host your own wine tasting for beginners.

Check out this post on Malbec vs. Syrah, another popular red wine, along with Cabernet Sauvignon vs. Merlot.

You can discover delicious wines at every price point. Explore this post on finding great red wines under $50.

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