Malbec vs Merlot: Which Will You Love Best?

Malbec and Merlot are both red wines and they are considered amongst the most popular wines around the world today. Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon follow closely on their heels. 

In this article, we are going to look closely at both Malbec and Merlot. We will consider their similarities and their differences and hopefully will steer you towards your favourite. Of course, the proof is in the tasting, but we will tell you what to expect.

Malbec and Merlot have done well in American wine competitions. The Brian Carter blend of Merlot and Malbec won double gold in 2015.  This is one of the highest honours a wine can get and to receive it, the panel of judges should all agree, with no dissenters. However, it is not easy to get this award and if a wine does receive this honour, the producers should be proud of themselves. The judges take into account, the flavour of the wone, the aroma, acidity, and other elements of quality. Wines are usually rated on a scale from 50 -100, with 100 being the highest possible score a wine could get. However, some wine magazines rate by giving up to five stars. There can be some disagreement among people watching the tastings. However, the judges are usually well-known and judged fairly. 

The Differences Between Malbec and Merlot

Although there are some similarities between Malbec and Merlot, there are also quite a few differences.

  • Merlot is very dry, while Malbec has a medium level of dryness  
  • Malbec has more body than Merlot
  • The chief producing areas for Malbec are Argentina and France, while Marlot is produced primarily in France, but also in Italy and Spain
  • Merlot tastes of cherries, with a hint of bay leaf while Malbec has a smoky flavour.

Are Merlot and Malbec Popular?

Yes, they are the two most popular red varieties out there, whether appearing in a blend or in their own right. They are used for many different occasions, from a casual meal to fine dining. Perhaps you might use a blend for an everyday meal at home while keeping the pure wine for a dinner party. 

Their popularity has increased over the years as can be seen if you look at all the different blends out there. This is reinforced by all the new areas where the grapes are grown.

Where is Malbec Produced?

Malbec grapes are grown in different areas of the world, although the wine originated in France around 1800. However, disaster struck and crop failures were leading to Malbec not being produced in France anymore. However, Argentina decided to grow the grapes needed to produce this wine. Argentina probably has the best climate for growing Malbec grapes, but France is now producing them again as well so they have competition.  

Malbec became one of the most popular wines in the world in 1999. Before this time it was primarily used in blends in the Bordeaux region of France, but now it is also produced as a pure wine. 

Today, Malbec is grown in both Argentina and France, as well as some other areas of the world such as California.

  • Argentina. Argentina has the honour of producing most of the Malbec wine and it is extremely popular among the people of Argentina. They love to drink Malbec with steak. The country has 100,000 acres dedicated to growing Malbec grapes so you can imagine how much wine they produce each year for both home consumption and export. The majority of the vineyards are found along the Andes mountains from Patagonia to Salta.
  • France. France is the second higher producer of Malbec wine, but they only have 10,000 acres compared to the 100,000 acres Argentina has. France produces both pure Malbec and blends. The main areas where the grapes are grown are Cahors and Bordeaux.
  • California. The third largest producer of Malbec is California. The grapes are grown in areas such as Livermore, Sonoma, Alexandra Valley, and Napa Valley
  • Other Areas. Malbec grapes are also grown in other regions such as Bolivia, Mexico, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Italy, Australia, and the Central Valley in Chile.

Where is Merlot Produced?

The history of Merlot goes back to 1780, only a short time before Malbec grapes were planted. The Merlot grapes were also planted in the Bordeaux region. They were nicknamed ‘the little blackbird’ because the grapes were so dark-skinned. They were originally grown to be used in blends, but are now also used as a pure wine. Both types have grown in popularity in recent years and although they are now grown all over the world, France is the main producer for Merlot.

  • France. Like the Malbec grape, Merlot grapes also suffered a crop blight. There were no grapes grown between the late 1950s and 1975 as the government imposed a ban. However, since then both blends and pure wines have been produced. In fact, France now produces two-thirds of the Merlot produced around the world. The country has dedicated 300,000 acres to this grape which proves how popular this wine has become. France, in fact, produces two-thirds of Merlot in the world. Most of the vineyards are in the Bordeaux area.
  • Italy. Italy is the second highest producer of Merlot and most of the grapes are grown in the Friuli region of Northern Italy as well as Tuscany. The majority of the wine produced here are blends. 
  • Other Regions. Merlot is also produced in other regions of the world. The regions include Spain, Portugal, Canada, South America, South Africa, Asia, and California and Washington State in the US.

Have Malbec and Merlot Anything Else in Common?

Merlot and Malbec started n the same way in France and then went worldwide after crop failures. Now, however, they are being produced in France again. Both are stand-alone wines as well as blends. 

Both wines are medium to full-bodied, dry, and they pair well with lean meats, pasta, and vegetarian and vegan dishes, such as a nut roast. 

However, having said this, there are differences between the two wines and we will take a look at them now.

What are the Differences Between Merlot and Malbec Wine?

  • Dryness. Both Malbec and Merlot are dry wines, meaning that they contain little residual sugars. This means that they are best enjoyed with appetizers and main courses, but not desserts. For desserts, you should use a proper dessert wine such as Barsac from south-western France.

Out of the two, you will find that Merlot is the drier of the two wines. Malbec has a very slight sweeter taste, but this doesn’t take away the fact that it is still a dry wine.

  • Body. The body of the wine relates to how heavy the wine feels when you taste it. A full-bodied wine is thick and rich. Malbec tends to be full-bodied, while Merlot has a medium to full body. Full-bodied wine tastes better than a medium-bodied wine. 
  • Tannins. Technically, tannins are the compounds of oxygen and hydrogen that are in the skin of the fruit, as well as polyphenols. Merlot has more tannins than Malbec, meaning that it is more tart than Malbec. Some people have to be careful with tannins as they can give you a headache or upset stomach if the amount in the wine is high.
  • Cost. Neither wine is particularly expensive but you will find that Merlot costs around double of Malbec. Of course, if you are buying a blend, it will be less expensive.
  • Flavour Notes. The taste of two wines of the same variety can differ due to the growing region and the growing method. However, there will still be similarities.

When it comes to Malbec and Merlot, they both taste of cocoa, vanilla, and plums. However, there are quite a few important differences between the two. Merlot also has flavour notes of cherry and bay leaf, making it taste a little savoury. Malbec, on the other hand, has hints of tobacco and blackberry. Merlot is closer in flavour to Cabernet Sauvignon than to Malbec and is considered a fruity wine, while Malbec is smoky and leathery. There are also some differences due to growing areas and conditions. 

When Merlot is produced in cooler climates such as Chile, northern Italy, and France, the wine is high in tannins and has an earthy flavour. Merlot from warmer climates such as California and Australia are low in tannins and have a smooth finish.

Malbec produced in France is high in tannins and tastes of coffee and tobacco, while Malbec produced in Argentina is fruitier, with distinct plum and blackberry notes.

  • Finish. This refers to the taste you still have in your mouth after you have finished drinking. If a wine is aged, especially if it has been oak-aged, it is likely to have a long and lingering finish. Malbec and Merlot generally have a short finish, but Malbec has a slightly longer finish with a smoky taste.
  • Food Pairings. Different wines go with different types of food. This is determined by the level of tannins, the flavour of the wine, the body, and the finish.

The body and flavour of Merlot can vary between growing regions significantly but there are still foods that pair with all of them. Italian chicken dishes are a good example. If you have a particularly light-bodied Merlot, serve it with pizza or Mexican food. If you are going to drink a full-bodied Merlot, heavier dishes work well. You could have spaghetti bolognese, meatballs, burgers, meatloaf, short ribs and even steak. 

Malbec goes well with cheeses and lean meats because it is lower in tannins. It can be paired with steak, lamb, pork, and even chicken. Yes, you can drink a glass of red wine with chicken sometimes! The smoky flavours of Malbec are brought out by the smoky flavours from such meats like pulled pork and steak. This wine also goes well with prime rib. In fact, there isn’t a meat that it doesn’t complement.  

  • Hue. Both Malbec and Merlot are red wines, but there are many colour differences. Merlot tends to be a light red, although this can vary according to where the grapes were grown. In general, Merlot has red and purple undertones and is a light-medium red. However, there are some versions that are a darker red. Malbec is generally darker than Merlot. It can range from inky red to violet. The colour is powerful and looks good when poured into a glass.

Is Merlot or Malbec the Right Wine For me?

Both Merlot and Malbec are easy to find in supermarkets, off-licences, and specialised wine shops. Merlot is probably the most popular of the two as it is more widely grown, but in Argentina, where Malbec grapes are grown in great quantities, it is the more popular of the two wines. 

If we look at the cost of the two wines, they are both reasonably priced, although Malbec is cheaper than Merlot. In general, it is half the price of Merlot. Still, both wines are highly affordable and would be a good choice for a dinner party, special occasion, or even just for an ordinary evening at home. There’s nothing wrong with treating yourself. 

There does seem to be more varieties of Merlot on the market, while Malbec wines tend to come from either France or Argentinian. Still, there is nothing wrong with this. It may be easier to find your favourite if there are fewer to choose from. It might be a good idea to go to a wine tasting before you purchase the wine. 

  • Merlot. You may prefer Merlot if you are keen on a fruity wine, which, at the same time, is subtle and not too full-bodied. It is not too complex a wine, but you can drink it with anything from pizzas, grilled cheese, and burgers, to sophisticated Italian cuisine. If you’re new to wine, Merlot is a great place to start as it isn’t a complex wine and has light flavours. However, some Merlots are rich and full-bodied, with riper flavour notes. They might not be the ideal introduction to the wine unless you are used to rich wines. Whichever you choose, you will find a good balance between the fruity flavour and the dryness of the wine. It is a sophisticated wine, but at the same time, it is approachable. 
  • Malbec. Malbec is smokier in flavour than Merlot is. The taste of fruit is secondary to the smoky undertones. Still, you can taste vanilla, plum, and cocoa, the tastes of which Merlot also has. However, some varieties also have the taste of liquorice. With the strong flavours that Malbec has, it is more complex than Merlot. It is perfect for formal occasions as it pairs with a lot of different cuisines, such as Argentinian and Italian. 

It is easier to make a choice of which Malbec to purchase as there are fewer regions to choose from. The grapes are mainly grown in Argentina and France, unlike Merlot which has more vineyards worldwide.

I think we can conclude that neither Merlot or Malbec is superior to the other despite the fact that Merlot is more expensive. Price doesn’t always make a better wine. It is just a matter of which one you prefer. Merlot is fruitier than Malbec, while Malbec has a smoky flavour which goes well with barbecues. The smokiness of the wine will complement the smokiness of the meat. Try the wine with simple things like burgers or a juicy steak cooked on the grill. If you’re not sure which wine to choose, you could go to a wine tasting if there is one in your area. Make notes about the body of each wine, the level of tannins, the aroma of the wine, and the flavour. Only then can you make a decision. If there aren’t any wine tastings in your area, you can always buy a bottle of wine of each variety and see which you prefer. Remember to sip slowly and enjoy the sensation the wine gives you. You can then see how complex the wine is and what the finish is. Does the flavour linger or does it go away far too quickly?

Perhaps you are celebrating something like an anniversary, a wedding, or a birthday, and you want to choose a high-quality wine. If so, you won’t go far wrong with either a Merlot or a Malbec. If you are having a lot of people over for the event, you may want a good wine that is affordable as you will be buying in bulk. Merlot and Malbec both fit these criteria, Merlot even more so. When coming to choose, look up where it was produced, with details about the vineyards. Check also if it has been aged. Wine actually tastes better if it has been aged. During this time, a chemical reaction happens between phenolic compounds, acids, and sugars. With time the wine tastes better.

If you really can’t choose between Malbec and Merlot, why not go for a blend between the two. Then you will get the best of both worlds.

Recommendations for the Best Merlot and Malbec Wines

If you want to experience the best of both varieties of wine, there are Merlot and Malbec brands that have been rated highly. We hope that you get the opportunity to try some of these as they are highly rated.

  • Man O’War Bordeaux Blend 2010. This blend of Malbec and Merlot comes from New Zealand on Waiheke Island. Here the vineyards follow sustainable practices so you can be assured that toxic chemicals aren’t used. As well as having Malbec and Merlot in the blend, there is also Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. The grapes are hand-selected, crushed and fermented and looked after on a daily basis. The wine is dark purple in colour and tastes of berries, cloves and Mediterranean herbs, with a hint of perfume. There is an aroma of mint and blackcurrants. It is a refined wine that comes with a certain amount of acidity.
  • Susana Balbo Nosotros Single Vineyard Nomade Malbec. If you are looking for a wine that isn’t blended, this Malbec is perfect. It would be an excellent wine to serve at a dinner party or on a special occasion such as an anniversary or a birthday party. In fact, this is our top choice of Malbecs and it is well worth trying. It has an opaque purple colour which looks outstanding in the glass, and the aroma is of smoky oak. The flavours are black fruits, spices, lavender, and liquorice. 
  • Septima Malbec 2016. This Malbec is ruby red. As you can see, the colours vary between varieties, but that doesn’t mean that one is better than the other. This wine has been oak-aged so you get a hint of toasty oak when you smell the wine. The flavours include figs and plums, with a hint of vanilla. It is subtle and light and goes well with pasta dishes and lean meats.
  • Bodegas O. FournierAlfa Crux Malbec 2010. If you are looking for a full-bodied wine to serve with steak, you won’t go far wrong with this Argentinian wine. It has notes of beef and Asian spices and it tastes of blackberries, plums, porcine, and chocolate. It is definitely a wine you would serve with red meats.
  • Duckham Napa Valley Merlot 2016. You will get an aroma of blueberries, cedar, vanilla, and cloves. It is full-bodied and tastes of plums, raspberries, and cherries. It is a good wine to serve with pasta in a tomato sauce, like bolognese.
  • Monticello Estate Merlot 2014. This wine is a rich red colour and it smells of raspberries, and cherries, with a hint of cola, vanilla, and coffee. The wine is suited to unusual meats like duck and venison.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Hybrid Grapevine?

Perhaps you haven’t heard about hybrid grapes and would like to know more. Hybrid grapes are when two varieties of grapes are combined to make a third variety. For example, you could breed Malbec and Merlot together to get a different variety. However, you can’t get hybrid grapes by crossing two grape varieties of the same species. For example, crossing a Malbec grape from Argentina and one from France will not produce hybrid grapes.  Hybrid grapes are rising in popularity because they are more resistant to diseases such as mildew, other fungal diseases, nematodes, roundworm, and phylloxera, aphid-like creatures. Because of this, hybrid grapes have become important in European breeding programmes. Some North American sites, such as Cornell and the University of Minnesota are also producing hybrid grapes. 

Is Wine Dry or Sweet Because of the Grape Variety?

Sweet wines are sweet because of the sugar residue left in the wine. It has nothing at all to do with grape variety. The same goes for dry wines. Wine is dry because of a finished fermentation process. For a true dey wine, there should be little sugar residue at the end of processing the wine.

Are wine sulfites dangerous?

Sulfites are one of the many chemical by-products created during the fermentation process. They are naturally occurring in low levels, in all wines. Sulfites are also added by the winemakers as it preserves and protects wine from yeast invasions and bacteria. They also stop oxidation from creeping in which would ruin the wine. Sulfites aren’t dangerous unless you have severe asthma or your body hasn’t got enough enzymes needed to break down the sulfites.    

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