Merlot and Pinot Noir make red wines from different varietals of dark grapes, and as such serve them at room temperature. They contain a little more alcohol content than other wines, 12 to 13 percent. Also they both ripen a bit earlier than other varieties. Their similarities end there. Their differences result from their diverse growing conditions.
The cultivation of the grape plants plays an important role in the taste of the wine. The temperature at which they grow; the amount of moisture they receive and the soil conditions change the chemistry of the grape.
Pinot Noir primarily grows in the Burgundy region of France. It also grows in California, Oregon, Washington, Australia, and New Zealand, but so far the most successful region remains Burgundy. It prefers a long, cool growing season, and limestone soil. To make growing it more difficult, the offspring do not necessarily inherit the good traits of the parent. "Everything Wine Book" refers to Pinot Noir as a "demanding diva." Because of the highly challenging growing conditions, it experiences limited production.
Merlot on the other hand grows easily under most conditions, making it a popular varietal among vineyards. It produces a simple, inexpensive wine. Prior to 1990, many vintners blended their Merlot with other varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
The Pinot Noir has a stronger flavor than Merlot, and growers rarely blend it with other varietals. Pinot Noir has lighter color with medium to high acidity. Merlot has a deeper color, and contains less tannin.
Merlot's tastes "plumy, sometimes chocolaty, and may suggest tealeaves," according to "Wine for Dummies", while a Pinot Noir smells and tastes fruity or woodsy depending on the growing conditions. "Everything Wine Book," describes a Pinot Noir as liquid silk, soft and velvety with a raspberry, cherry or smoke-flavor and a full-bodied wine, yet not heavy.
The three references agree that Merlot offers an inexpensive and mild wine designed for the consumer. It has only been popular for about the last twenty years. It does not age in the bottle or improve over time. Therefore, collectors do not buy Merlot. Wine makers produce it for consumption, so buy it, drink it, and enjoy.
Pinot Noir's taste varies depending on vineyard, the season, and vintner. "Wine Wise," calls it the most food friendly wine, and "Food and Wine" agrees with their assessment. This wine serves well with salmon.
Sitting around with friends on a Friday night, serve a Merlot. Its mild flavor goes well with most foods, while its price accommodates gatherings. Going to an expensive restaurant, order Pinot Noir with the meal, and feel safe that it will not clash with the meal's flavors. However, since brands vary in flavor, try a few brands to determine a preference before going out.