Cabernet Sauvignon Versus Merlot

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the heavy hitters when it comes to red wine. Both have common origins in France and have since spread throughout the world. Here is a little background on each and how they stack up against each other in terms of taste and food pairings.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the world's most widely recognized and sought after red wines. It emerged as America's most popular red wine in the 1960s, and by the late 1980s it had supplanted "burgundy" as a generic term for red wine. It is sometimes referred to as the “King of Red Wine Grapes".

Originally from the Bordeaux region in France, where it was apparently the product of a chance crossing between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc during the 17th century, Cabernet Sauvignon is now one of the most frequently planted grapes in the world, and has established its presence in every major wine producing country. One reason for the popularity of Cabernet is ease of cultivation including resistance to rot and frost. The plant tends to favor warmer climates and does exceptionally well in places like California.

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are smaller and and thicker-skinned than Merlot with a notably higher tannic acid content. This tannin results in a strong bodied wine with a smell that is reminiscent of black currents. New World varieties are sometimes described as having a peppery, chocolately, or earthy flavor.


Merlot is one of the most widely planted grapes in the Bordeaux region of France, where the grape has been cultivated since at least the 1700s. It is now grown extensively throughout the world. Note that Cabernet Sauvignon was the world's most widely planted red wine grape for most of the 20th century until it was surpassed by Merlot in the 1990s.

The name "Merlot" is believed to have derived from an old French word for a young blackbird either due to the dark-blue color of the grape or perhaps the bird's affinity for the grape.

Merlot grapes are characterized by loose bunches of large berries that are dark-blue in color but not quite as dark as Cabernet grapes. The grapes also have a thinner skin, fewer tannins, a higher sugar content, and lower acid content. The Merlot grape is harvested earlier than the Cabernet, by up to two weeks.

Merlot tends to be a smoother, less complex wine than Cabernet. It is less acidic than Cabernet with a fruitier taste that is often described as containing hints of berry (in particular, blackberry), plum, and currant. Merlot's softer profile makes it more approachable to some wine drinkers, especially those who are still developing a taste for red wine.

Wine Maturation and Blending

Cabernet Sauvignon takes longer to mature than Merlot ( 5 to 10 years is not uncommon). This aging allows the flavors to mellow, producing a wine with a more complex, sophisticated taste that appeals to the palate of veteran red wine drinkers. In addition, Cabernet Sauvignon is often blended with softer varieties like Shiraz or Cabernet Franc to soften the wine, impart fruit tones, and to add body and richness.

Cabernet is also blended with Cabernet, producing a smoother Cabernet with a unique taste that differs from either a pure Merlot or Cabernet. A wine expert might say the blending mellows the Cabernet while imparting more structure and definition to the Merlot. Merlot has been used as a blending grape in California for decades.

Food Pairings

Cabernet goes well with red meats, pastas with red sauce, lamb, strong-flavored cheese, and dark chocolate. Merlot goes well with red meat as well as poultry, pork, pastas, salads. It is quite popular when paired with beef and lamb. Light bodied Merlots go well with seafood including prawns, scallops, and salmon. Stronger bodied, Cabernet-like Merlots go well with many of the same foods that Cabernet Sauvignon pairs with such as juicy steaks and prime rib.


Cabernet Sauvignon is typically more expensive than Merlot due to strong demand and its perceived higher stature among sophisticated wine drinkers. However, the best Merlots can command prices on par with the best Cabernets.