Cabernet Vs. Merlot: What's The Difference?

With so many varieties available, choosing a wine can be intimidating. Whether you're pacing the aisles of your local wine shop or scanning a restaurant's wine list, not knowing the difference between options can lead to an order motivated by panic or a just-throw-something-in-the-cart defeat.

When it comes to reds, Cabernet and Merlot two of the most prominent varieties stateside, according to Better Homes and Gardens. So what exactly is the difference between these two popular reds?

Well actually, the origins of Cabernet and Merlot are similar, according to Vinepair, as they are both originally from Bordeaux, France. Now, Cabernet is grown in many regions, notes Vinepair, but France is still the largest grower of the grape, even with its prominence in California's wine country. Merlot follows suit, says Wine Spectator, and is also most prominent in France and California. It's in the flavor profiles where the two start to differ, explains Vinepair.

Taste the difference

As Wine Folly notes, the region in which the grapes are grown, and the cool or hot climate of that area, have an impact on the flavor of each wine variety. This complicates the flavor differences between Merlot and Cabernet, Wine Folly explains, as varieties from a warmer climate (like California) will taste different from the same grapes and resulting wines grown in cooler climates (like Bordeaux). This concept is known as terroir, which Merriam-Webster defines as "the combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character."

Terroir aside, Merlot's flavor is generally considered the softer grape of the two, according to Vinepair. Wine Spectator explains this "softer wine" is the result of Merlot grapes ripening sooner than those of Cabernet, and points to the wine's fruit-forward flavors, including plum and blackberry, as a result.

In comparison, Vinepair explains that Cabernet ripens relatively late in the season, and is typically the bolder of the two. Cabernet's flavor, according to Vinepair, includes black-fruits and hearty tannins, which have a drying effect on the palate.

So next time you're exploring a wine aisle or menu, reach for a Merlot and a Cabernet and taste the difference for yourself.