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Malbec vs. Merlot: the Main Differences

malbec vs. merlot
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Learn about Malbec versus Merlot wines, including how they taste, what they have in common and what foods to pair each with.

What Is Malbec?

A full-bodied wine grown in Argentina, Malbec comes from plump, dark grapes. This popular wine has a smoky finish and often serves as a more affordable substitute for Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon.

Malbec grapes have an inky color accompanied by robust tannins that follow through in the flavor. They are often used in red Bordeaux wine mixes, and the grape is now grown worldwide.

What Is Merlot?

Merlot grapes are blue in color and used in blends and varietal wines. In French, “merle” means blackbird, and this may explain the origin of the name. Grapes used to make Merlot wine are soft and fleshy. They also ripen early, making them a perfect choice to blend in Cabernet Sauvignon, which consists mostly of later ripening grapes with a high tannin content.

How Are Malbec and Merlot Different?

Typical wine drinkers may not immediately know the difference between Merlot and Malbec wines. Connoisseurs can taste the slight notes that differentiate these two popular wine classes. Here are a few key differences that go into each glass of wine:

  • Malbec comes mostly from Argentina and France, whereas Merlot traditionally comes from France. However, the United States, Spain and Italy also produce merlots.
  • Merlot has a drier taste than Malbec. In fact, professionals call it a bone-dry wine, meaning it has just 0.5% of residual sugar.
  • These two wines also have specific taste profiles. In Merlot, plum and cherry mingle with bay leaf notes. In contrast, Malbec wine has a smoky ambiance coupled with a berry fruit taste.
  • A highly-rated bottle of Malbec typically costs an average of $25 a bottle, which is a great price for wine. A comparable Merlot averages $40 per bottle, which is midrange for wine prices.
  • Malbec leaves behind a deep, smoky aftertaste compared to Merlot.
  • Merlot takes 10 years to age in a cellar but Malbec varieties age within 5 to 10 years.

How Are Malbec and Merlot Similar?

Both Merlot and Malbec wines originally came from the French Bordeaux region and were originally used in other red wine blends. These wines have short finishes for a crisp taste. Additionally, both red wines boast a medium, full body, according to Masterclass.com.

For the average wine drinker, the taste of Malbec and Merlot appear very similar at first sip. However, Malbec’s deep purple color holds a visual clue for what’s in store for your palate. Both wines have a good deal of history behind them and have gained popularity in recent decades.

What’s Better About Malbec?

Malbec blend
Photo by Mauro Lima on Unsplash

Although Malbec was originally grown in Bordeaux, France, it is also produced in Argentina.

Many prefer Argentinian malbecs, purporting that the country’s climate and weather conditions are ideal for this grape. Once used only as an additive for red wine mixes, Malbec has come into its own as a popular wine.

Malbec has a velvety taste, and its medium tannins lead to an elegant, smooth finish. Pure Malbec with no additional variables produces a smoky finish that clings to the palate after each sip.

For those who prefer dry red wines, Malbec has a suitably high level of tannins with medium acidity. In contrast, Merlot tends to be sweeter. The preference comes down to pallet, the occasion and what dishes will accompany the wine.

What’s Better About Merlot?

The majority of Merlot grapes come from Bordeaux, France. This grape prefers dry weather and less sunlight than other varieties. California growers have had mixed success with Merlot grapes, but it is currently trending downward from its peak in the early 2000s.

The dry, cool quality of Merlot mimics the weather preferred by the grapes used to produce it. The magic of Merlot lies in its ability to take on different qualities when mixed with other grape species. For example, Merlot mixed with Cabernet generates an exceptional blend.

Merlot tends to play easy on the palate. Infrequent wine drinkers may prefer this sweeter varietal. It’s soft, rich finish comes from the thin skin of the grapes used to produce it. The thin skin lets in the sun, resulting in a sweeter pulp.

Suggestions for Meal Pairing for Malbec vs. Merlot?

Even novice wine drinkers know that red wine is a legendary pairing with beef dishes. Both Malbec and Merlot wines can provide an enjoyable companion to your steak dinner. Let’s take a look at when to choose the sturdier Malbec or the sweeter Merlot.

For a laid-back dinner of pasta, pizza or lamb chops, Merlots with a lighter body will serve you well. For flavorful steak dishes served with robust vegetables, accompany the meal with a medium-bodied Merlot for perfect balance.

A young Malbec elevates a hearty meal such as pasta with meatballs. Older, more expensive Malbec goes well with beef barbecue or steak dinners when you want a glass of dry red wine to enhance your meal.

Spaghetti and meatballs
Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Who Should Buy Malbec and Why?

According to Wine Folly, Malbec has an elegant finish accompanied by dark smoky notes. This wine is more complex than a sweeter Merlot. You can use this complexity to offset many different cuisines.

Malbec makes a great wine to toast with on formal occasions while Merlot makes for an easy company with your deep-dish pizza.

As a full-bodied red wine, Malbec yearns for full-bodied foods as dinner companions. It doesn’t have the aggressive tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon, so you can also drink it with lean red meats or roasted pork.

Tip: Use ingredients like sage, mushroom sauces, pepper, blue cheese and melted cheese to bring out the flavor of your favorite Malbec wine.

Who Should Get Merlot and Why?

For those who prefer delicate wines with subtler tastes, Merlot might be the best choice. This simpler wine pairs with many different dishes. Its plum and cherry notes make it a favorite with new wine drinkers. If you don’t like dry wines, Merlot can be a friendly alternative to Malbec.

Along the spectrum of red wines, Merlot lies squarely in the middle. This means that you can pair it with light meat such as chicken as well as spicy meals. If you prefer less acidity, Merlot will serve you well.

Choose Merlot from a cooler climate such as France to bring out the flavors of roasted vegetables. It also goes well with tomato dishes. Roast duck, lean beef and turkey make excellent companions for a classic Merlot. The French love to serve food with sauces and Merlot goes well with dishes such as beef bourguignon.


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