pouring red wine into glass on the table

They’re both red. That’s where the similarities between merlot and pinot noir wines end. The differences between merlot and pinot noir wines are best defined on the palate and, to some degree, with the eye and nose. And the differences that exist between an American cool climate and warm climate and French varieties of both, not to mention the imports from Italy, Australia and Argentina, all affect the wine. But you can show off your prowess with a wine list if you understand pinot noir versus merlot. As with all red wines, it all starts with the grape, the sun, the soil and the vintner.

The Visual and Taste Difference

A closer look at what’s in the glass finds that pinot noirs are lighter in color and have a less “jammy” fragrance than merlots. The film “Sideways” put pinot noir on the map for American wine drinkers, but the French perfected the delicate taste of this versatile wine. Merlot, depending on where the grapes are grown, has either a savory or a sweet flavor, making food pairings more complex.

Tasting American Pinot Noir

Pinot noir grapes thrive in very particular growing conditions ‒ the cooler the better. The cool climates of Oregon and Washington are best for producing the pinot noir grape, with California’s heat affecting the taste and consistency of its pinot. Warm temperatures give the grape a sweeter, thicker taste and feel. American pinot noirs are considered “New World” wines, while European varieties are “Old World.” The California version of pinot noir also has a higher alcohol content.

Comparing Pinot Noirs

French pinot noir has been produced in the Burgundy region for more than 1,000 years. The cool, inland terroir, composed mostly of limestone, coddles this delicate grape. The thin skin of the pinot noir grape means that it's more exposed to the elements than California pinot noir, which has a thicker skin. It also gives the French pinot noir a cleaner, crisper texture.

While California pinot noirs are defined by the vintner and the growing climate, French pinot noirs are consistent with what we expect from a French red wine originating in Burgundy. The more northern areas of France, such as the Loire Valley, are now producing a limited amount of pinot noir grapes, and the origin of that grape is defined on the bottle’s label.

In America, the label gives the name of the producer, the year it was produced and the type of grape. It doesn’t tell us where the grape was grown, leaving us to guess whether it’s a warm or cool weather pinot noir grape, which makes a difference in taste.

Merlot ‒ The Granddaddy of Bordeaux

The merlot grape, along with the cabernet sauvignon grape, created the Bordeaux wine industry that we have known for decades. Merlot is the most-planted grape in Bordeaux, and along with the cabernet grape, form the basis of the great blends of Bordeaux wine. Merlot takes the edge off the cabernet sauvignon and adds a touch of fruit to the taste.

Merlot was originally bottled as 100 percent merlot after the grape arrived in America in the mid-1800s. The grape itself is delicate, and, like a petulant child, it needs precise growing conditions to mature into a loving adult ‒ not too hot, not too cold. The hot climates of Paso Robles and the Napa Valley merlot taste more of black fruits ‒ cherries and plums ‒ than pinot noir and are less complex. They differ in taste from the cool-climate, Washington and right bank Bordeaux merlots, which have higher tannins and a more earth-forward flavor.

Bordeaux vintners now produce 100% merlots, but the price per bottle is extreme, leaving the American, Italian, Australian and Argentinian producers more in control of the merlot market. On its own, merlot wine is a gentle drink that suits the American taste for a sipping wine.

Merlot and Pinot Noir Food Pairings

A cool-climate merlot is a vegetarian’s dream. It pairs perfectly with roasted vegetables, and even tomatoes taste better after a sip of merlot. For those who get their protein from meat, duck, turkey, chicken and a spicy tagine, a merlot also pairs well.

Pinot noir from California and Washington, with its heavier taste, pairs best with spicy and gamey dishes, including goose, pulled pork, and any meat that includes figs or cherries in its sauces. French pinots go down beautifully alongside a wheel of brie topped with a sweet-sour red pepper jam or even a beef Wellington topped with a duxelle of mushrooms, truffles or pate.