Malbec Vs Merlot: Comparing Great Wine Varieties

Malbec and Merlot are two examples of popular red wines that have comparable features. The two wines look and taste similar, so unless you’re an experienced sommelier, it can be difficult to tell them apart. 

Malbec Vs Merlot: Comparing Great Wine Varieties

Both Malbec and Merlot are dry wines with fruity cherry and plum notes, except Merlot is dryer compared to Malbec. It’s a brighter shade of red with a light cherry hue, while Malbec is deep purple with a dark magenta color around the glass. 

Each wine is rich and hearty, but Malbec is more weighty. Malbec is known as a full-bodied drink and has a slightly smoky aftertaste. Merlot is medium-bodied with a smoother taste, but its finish isn’t as long as Malbec. 

We’ll cover more about Merlot and Malbec’s differences in this post, including where each wine is made, their similarities, and how to tell which wine is best for you. 

Malbec and Merlot: How They Are Made

Here is a brief explanation of how Malbec and Merlot are made.


Harvesting Merlot grapes and turning them into wine requires skilled winemakers and grape growers. The Merlot grapes need lots of energy and effort from the farmers, though the results are certainly worth it!

Merlot grapevines do best in cool, well-draining soil. They need a specific pruning technique to achieve the best results. Merlot grapes ripen very quickly, so to pick them at the correct time, the farmers need to pay close attention to the harvest. 

Winemakers will decide if the Merlot will be a dry or sweet wine before the wine’s fermentation stage. They will then choose to age the wine or ferment it in oak barrels. 

In each instance, the oak barrel will create a heartier beverage, infusing the Merlot with vanilla, wood, and cocoa notes. 


Compared to Merlot grapes, Malbec grapevines require more heat to ripen successfully. If the conditions are warm, the grapes will begin to ripen halfway through the growing season.

As Malbec grapes are very sensitive to growing conditions, the grapes ripening stage will considerably affect the wine’s construction. 

Similar to Merlot grapes, Malbec grapes are susceptible to early frost, despite ripening later. 

These grapes are susceptible to downy mildew, which turns leaves yellow and negatively affects the fruit. The grapes can also undergo colure, which is when poor weather conditions lead to the grapes failing to mature after flowering. 

If everything goes smoothly, the yield will be large and able to produce dark and distinct tannins from the soil. 

What Grapes Is Each Wine Made From?


Merlot grapes have a red hue, although some believe that the skin is blue with a black tinge. 

Merlot grapes come from Bordeaux, a region located in southwestern France. The grapes spread across the world as ancient Romans took the grapevines to Saint Emilion, Saint Estephe, and Pomerol. 

As time went on, Merlot then spread across the globe, growing in places like Washington, California, Argentina, Australia, South Africa, and Chile.  


Malbec grapes are a dark blue-black shade and come from Cahors in southwestern France. Malbec grapevines do well in Argentina, which is one of the reasons the country is known for its wine.

Malbec grape skin starts to thin in low altitudes. The fruit remains soft and tender, complementing grapes used to make rosés and lighter red wines. 

If the altitudes are higher, the grape skin will thicken, leading to a richer, heartier flavor. Wines made with these grapes are bold, fragrant, and have a distinct, noticeable shade. 

Similarities Between Merlot And Malbec

Both Malbec and Merlot began in France and started to spread throughout the world in later years. Despite crop failures in the 20th century, both wine varieties are being made in France once more (see also “Pinot Grigio Vs Chardonnay: Comparing Great Wine Varieties“). They work well as stand-alone wines and blends. 

Merlot and Malbec are dry, medium to full-bodied wines that work well with several courses. Examples include pasta, lean meat, and several vegan and vegetarian recipes, like lentil roasts. 

Despite these similarities, there are significant differences that separate each wine, which we’ll cover next. 

Differences Between Malbec And Merlot

Here are some of the main differences between Malbec and Merlot.

Dry Wines

Both Merlot and Malbec are dry wines that contain fewer residual sugars. This makes them a nice choice alongside main courses and appetizers, but not sweet dessert dishes. Desserts work best with dessert wines, like French Barsac.

Merlot tastes dryer compared to Malbec. Malbec is a little sweeter, but not so much that it stops being a dry wine.


A wine’s body refers to how weighty the drink feels upon tasting. Full-bodied wines are rich, hearty, and thick. Merlot is medium to full-bodied, while Malbec is full-bodied. 

People tend to prefer how full-bodied wines taste over medium-bodied wines. 


Tannins are the hydrogen and oxygen compounds located in the skin of the grapes, including the polyphenols. 

Merlot contains more tannins compared to Malbec, so it has a more tart flavor. Malbec does contain tannins, but at a moderate amount, so it doesn’t taste bitter. 


The way Malbec and Merlot taste will depend on the winemaker’s production methods and the grape growing region. 

Both wines have similarities, as Merlot and Malbec both have plum, vanilla, and cocoa notes. 

The difference is that Merlot contains bay leaf and cherry notes that give it a savory appeal. Malbec has blackberry and tobacco notes which give it a smoky touch. Merlot is thought to be a fruity wine, while Malbec is dark and leathery. 

If Merlot is made in cooler conditions, like in France, North Italy, and Chile, the wine has an earthy taste and contains lots of tannins. If Merlot is made in warmer conditions, like Australia or California, the wine is smoother with fewer tannins.

Malbec made in France has tobacco and coffee notes, along with lots of tannins. Malbec made in Argentina tastes fruity, with notable blackberry and plum notes. 


A wine’s finish relates to the taste in your mouth once you’ve finished a sip. Aged wines, particularly oak-aged wines, tend to have a prolonged finish. 

Merlot and Malbec both have a short finish, though Malbec has a somewhat longer finish, along with a charred aftertaste.


Various wines go with different types of food. This depends on the wine’s tannins, flavor, finish, and body.

Merlot’s flavor and body can differ between its regions, though there are foods that work well with all Merlots. If your Merlot is lighter in body, Mexican dishes and pizza pair well. If your Merlot is full-bodied, opt for heavier dishes. Meatballs, short ribs, spaghetti bolognese, and steak are all nice options. 

Malbec is lower in tannins, so it’s nice to pair with lean meat and cheese. It also works well with pork, steak, and lamb. Malbec’s smoky notes work well with the charred nature of steak and pork. 


Merlot and Malbec are both red wines, though there are a few shade differences. 

Merlot is usually a lighter red shade, though this may differ depending on the grapes’ region. You may find some varieties that are dark red, but in most cases, Merlot has purple and red undertones and is a medium to light red color. 

Malbec is usually deeper in color compared to Merlot. This may be violet to black-red in hue. Malbec always has a bold shade and looks fantastic when it pours inside a wine glass.

Malbec And Merlot Food Pairings

Here’s a guide on what food pairings work best with Malbec and Merlot. 


Merlot is available in several different styles. There are grand and bolt options from Bordeaux and lighter ones from Veneto. Despite their differences, several types of food work well with different Merlot wines.

Merlot works well with several Italian recipes, particularly tomato-based dishes. The wine complements the umami (savory and meat-like) notes in parmesan, roast chicken, and mushrooms. 

As Merlot is medium-bodied, it works well with rich saucy dishes, like casseroles and steak in red wine sauce. Roasted vegetables with sweet notes, like red peppers, beets, and roast squash are nice side dish choices for the wine. 

If your Merlot has fruity notes, it will work well with fruitier recipes, like cranberry sauce or redberry fruit salads. 

The wine’s gentle sweetness pairs well with some hot dishes, like jambalaya and blacked fish. However, don’t pair Merlot with Indian spiced dishes, as its full body may detract from the dish’s many flavors and spices. 


Malbec is a fuller-bodied wine, which makes it a perfect accompaniment to rich and hearty dishes. Don’t pair the wine with mild or gentle flavors, as the wine will overpower the entire meal.

Malbec’s moderate tannin level works well with several types of meat, including leaner cuts. The wine works well with pork, lamb, and steak, as well as dark meat poultry and fatty fish like salmon. Venison, bison, and ostrich are also nice choices.

Malbec also works well with thick and rich sauces with bold flavors. Asian spices and barbecue sauces work particularly well. 

However, it’s best to avoid vinegar dressings and bitter vegetables, as these can cause metallic or bitter flavors in the wine. 

Malbec Or Merlot: Which Wine Should I Pick?

Malbec and Merlot are both easy to find in grocery stores and specialty wine stores. Merlot is more popular as the grapes are grown in more regions. The only exception is Argentina. Malbec grapes are grown in large quantities here, so it’s the more popular in Argentina.

Malbec wine tends to be from Argentina or France, but there are usually more types of Merlot available to purchase. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it may be simpler to find your favorite option if there is less choice available. 


If you like fruity wines that are gentle and not full-bodied, you might like Merlot better than Malbec. Merlot isn’t very complex, so you can pair it with lots of different dishes. Casual meals like grilled cheese and pizza work well, as well as elegant Italian dishes that are served at dinner events. 

If you’re a wine beginner, Merlot is a nice wine to start with, as it’s lighter and doesn’t have too many notes. Keep in mind that a few Merlots are full-bodied and have distinct flavors, so they might not be the best choice unless you like rich wine.

No matter what Merlot you choose, it’s a nice balance between the wine’s dryness and fruity flavors. Merlot is elegant, but welcoming at the same time.


Malbec has smokier notes compared to Merlot. Its fruity flavors are secondary compared to the smokier layers. Despite this, you’ll be able to notice cocoa, plum, and vanilla notes, just like the ones in Merlot. 

As Malbec has stronger notes, it’s more complex compared to Merlot. This makes it a better choice for formal events as it works well with various cuisines, like Italian and Argentinian.

As Malbec is grown in fewer regions, it’s easier to choose a bottle. Malbec grapes are primarily grown in France and Argentina, compared to Merlot grapes which are grown in vineyards throughout the world. 

What To Do If You Can’t Choose

Neither Malbec nor Merlot is better than the other. Merlot may tend to cost more, but the price doesn’t necessarily mean the wine taste better. The choice is down to which wine you like best.

Malbec has smoky flavors that work well with barbecued meat, while Merlot is fruitier and works with lighter dishes. Try each wine with simple meals, like a grilled steak or burger, and see which one you prefer.

You can also try attending a wine tasting in your area. Remember to jot down notes about each wine’s body, tannin level, fragrance, and flavor notes. See which ones you like best and get an idea of what you will like in the future. 

If you can’t attend any wine tastings, simply buy a bottle of Malbec and Merlot, then see which one you like best. Sip each one slowly and see how the finish is. You may want to sip some water in between each wine to cleanse your palate.

 If you’re stuck between the two, some winemakers make Malbec and Merlot blends. See if you can find a bottle or two, as these will give you the best of each wine. 

Malbec And Merlot Serving Tips

Here are some serving tips to keep in mind the next time you drink Malbec or Merlot.


Malbec’s ideal serving temperature is between 60°F and 65°F, which is just under room temperature. 

Though most people drink red wine at room temperature, it isn’t meant to be drunk warm. Red wine was initially stored in caves or cold wine cellars, so it’s best to chill it slightly before serving. 

If you’re storing Malbec for later use, its ideal temperature is between 55°F and 59°F. You can keep Malbec in a wine cellar, cabinet, or wine fridge. 

Don’t expose the wine to extreme temperature differences, as this can affect the wine’s flavors. 

As Malbec is full-bodied, pour it into a wine-bowled glass, as this frees its fragrances throughout the bowl. These glasses emphasize the wine’s spicy notes and help balance its smoky flavors. 


Merlot is best served between 60°F and 65°F. If it’s too cold, the wine won’t emit its distinct flavors or aromas. If it’s too warm, the wine will taste overly alcoholic instead of pleasant. 

If you’re storing Merlot for later use, it’s best to keep it between 55°F and 65°F. A wine fridge is great for this, but you can keep it in a cabinet if you don’t have one of these available. 

You can also transfer a Merlot bottle into the fridge 15 minutes before serving. This will cool it to its optimum serving temperature. 

If your Merlot bottle has been opened, place it in the refrigerator to enjoy later. Merlot, along with other red wines, will last roughly four days once opened in the fridge. 

Remember to remove the bottle from the fridge around an hour beforehand. This ensures the wine isn’t too cold and is at optimal temperature when you next drink it. 

Malbec And Merlot Alternatives

Here are some wines to try that are similar to Merlot and Malbec.


Barbera is an Italian grape that tastes similar to Merlot grapes. Despite being a dark, deep shade, Barbera wine is low in tannins. 

The difference here is that Barbera is higher in acidity compared to Merlot, but it’s still juicy and invigorating. 

Cabernet Franc is another good Merlot substitute, as their grapes come from Cabernet Sauvignon, a medium-bodied wine. 

Cabernet Franc has similar earthy notes, like Merlot, that work well with roasted peppers. Some varieties have a balance of red fruit flavors and herbs that work well with several dishes. 


Syrah is a nice Malbec alternative, as both wines share fruity notes. Both types come from France but have been popularized around the world.

Syrah has olive, spicy, and smoky notes that are similar to Malbec’s darker flavors. It’s a nice wine to drink on its own, but you can find red grape Syrah blends that taste like Merlot too.

Bonarda is another good Malbec substitute as it has fruity and fresh flavors. You’ll note violet aromas with plum, blueberry, and cherry notes. These are similar to Malbec’s plum and cherry flavors.

Bonarda has fewer tannins and tastes juicier compared to Malbec, but its complex flavor profile makes it a decent Malbec alternative.

Final Thoughts

Now you know more about Malbec and Merlot! 

Though these red wines may seem similar, there are several differences between the two. Merlot is a medium-bodied and fruity wine, while Malbec is full-bodied and smokier. 

If you’re struggling to pick between the two, purchase a bottle of each and try a taste test at home. 

You can also think about the foods which you like best. Malbec’s complex flavor profile works well with elegant and rich dishes, while Merlot’s fruity nature works with both casual and hearty meals. 

We hope you consider trying one (or both!) of these delicious red wines! 

Also Read: Malbec Vs. Cabernet Sauvignon: A Comprehensive Wine Face-off

Jon Barbieri
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