Malbec, merlot, cabernet... they're all red wines; they all range in price from inexpensive to over-the-hill pricey; and all three originated in the vineyards of France. "Originated" is the key word here, because while France claims ownership of the priciest of the red wines, they no longer hold title as the exclusive growing location. A little bit of wine history is in order to fully understand the differences in malbec, merlot and cabernet.
Cross-Breeding Created Cabernet Sauvignon
The wandering vines of the cabernet franc grape crossed the fields and joined up with the vines growing the sauvignon blanc grape (or maybe it was the other way around) sometime in the 17th century. The thick-skinned, small grape that was the result of this "marriage" produced a rich, smooth wine that appealed to the tastes of growers on the left bank of the Gironde River in the Bordeaux region of France.
By the 18th century, the full-bodied cabernet sauvignon was building a reputation among the growers of the top brands, and it became the premier grape of the Bordeaux region, where it still reigns as king of the grapes. A hearty grape that can grow in a variety of soils, known as "terroir," cabernet sauvignon's vines soon crossed the ocean and were planted in California, where the growing conditions were similar to those of Bordeaux's left bank.
Curiously, most cabernet sauvignon wines are not blended from 100 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes. Only a few growers in Bordeaux still produce 100 percent cabernet, while others blend it with merlot or cabernet Franc, giving it a complex taste.
Tasting the Difference: Cabernet
Wine snobs take pleasure in the show. They pour the wine into a specific-shaped glass, swirl it around while exclaiming about its deep red color, noticing the abundance of "legs" left on the bowl of the glass; then, they sniff, sip, slurp, gargle and spit.
From the table, cries emanate as to the balance of its minerality. The connoisseurs note its young, fruity, slightly spicy taste, which indicates the grapes were harvested at the beginning of the season. Or, perhaps it aged in the bottle and acquired the mature, round, delicate and smooth taste that the magic of time gives a good wine. The taste difference is discovered as the wine is transformed into an elegant waltz once it moves from the front of the mouth to the back – the true wine-snob taste test.
The older it gets, the more the berry taste of a young cabernet matures into a tougher, stronger flavor. The heady taste of tobacco, mushrooms or leather emerge, pushing the berries to the back. Such is the life of a bottle of cabernet sauvignon. California cabernets tend to be more "jammy" – thicker than their French cousins and more fruit-forward. They are also more acidic and alcoholic – over 14 percent compared to around 12 percent for the French version. And unless you're drinking 100 percent cabernet, the blend includes merlot and, possibly, cabernet Franc.
Merlot Dominates in Bordeaux
More than 60 percent of the grapes grown in the vineyards of the Bordeaux region are merlot, according to The Wine Insider. But, unlike the definitive cabernet sauvignon grape, the merlot grape prefers the clay and limestone of the right bank of the Gironde, where the sun doesn't pound down on the vines and the days are drier.
Like cabernet, merlot is best when it's blended. The sweetness of its grape counters that of the prickly cabernet, and together they make a blend that registers high on the taste scale. California growers haven't had great luck with merlot, but the winemakers in the cooler climate areas northwest of Oregon and Washington have achieved good success rates.
Soft and rich are two descriptive words for merlot. The thin skin of the grape makes it less acidic and sweeter, since it absorbs the sun more easily, and it's less full-bodied than cabernet. It was once considered a beginner's red because it's considered easy to drink.
The largest-growing crop in the world of wine, merlot contributes to the blends of some of the world's most-expensive wines. While cabernets are rich, occasionally overwhelming and require a full-bodied food accompaniment, a merlot's character is less fussy. It's easier on the palate and goes with everything from fish to duck. It also lends itself to pairing with savory dishes that need the counterbalance of a wine that travels without baggage.
Malbec and Its Argentinean Link
It's curious how the red wine we know as malbec hit consumers with a bang, almost like pinot noir after the film "Sideways" became popular. But with European and Californian wines inching up in price and the palates of moderate red wine drinkers already whet for the red stuff, malbec made a soft entrance in the U.S. market beginning in the early 2000s. And soft is a good way to describe it. It's not a wine that needs a plate of food to enhance its pleasure, but is easily drunk standing at a bar munching pretzels.
Not a Bordeaux grape, but instead, one born in Cahors, France, malbec and the French terroir didn't really get along very well. Growers, not wanting to give over their fields to a crop that probably would fail, planted a small quantity to be used in a blend with other reds.
Along came a group of Argentinean growers touring the wine-producing areas of France, and their introduction to the malbec grape would make wine history. After chopping off cuttings from French malbec vines, their luggage was bursting with vines as the ship headed for the Mendoza region of Argentina. Voila! Malbec was on its way, but not very quickly.
It took more than 100 years for the vines and the high, hot altitude of this region nestled in the shadow of the Andes to perfect their relationship, but when they did, the Argentinean market was blessed with a low-cost, mild-tasting red that was more big-box store than Rodeo Drive.
Wine buyers took notice of the easy-to-drink and easy-on-the-pocketbook malbec when the wine market of French and California reds started to get bigger than their egos. A less expensive, easily accessible, crowd-pleasing red was needed, and Argentina's malbec was the answer.
Malbec's Rise to Fame
Malbec's taste notes sound like a shopping list in the produce department of a supermarket: black cherries, roasted beets and flowers, but this is the description often used to describe malbec wine. Less expensive malbecs are deep in color and grapey in taste, while the more-refined, hence more expensive malbecs are delicate and rich.
Appealing to a wide variety of drinkers from snobs and socialites to regular Joes and Joannes, malbec's diversity is as wide as its price range.
Drink Wine the Way YOU Like It
Red wine, white wine, rose wine – all come in a variety of aromas and tastes. The key to enjoying wine is to drink it in a way that gives you pleasure. Reds, especially, are noted for their "table manners" and encourage much debate as to how they should be served and sipped.
Cellar temperature, not room temperature – around 58 degrees Fahrenheit – is the optimum temperature for red wine. Open the bottle and aerate it by pouring it into a decanter. The air releases the flavors. If you're at a bar or restaurant, let the wine sit in your glass for a while as the red gold gets acquainted with the air.
And if you want to add an ice cube to a red that's been served at room temperature, do it! The waiter may give you a disdainful look, but he's not paying for it, is he? "Red red wine"... the lyrics to the song may elude you, but the taste of a good red stays, whether you're drinking cabernet, merlot or malbec.
- The Inquirer: Great Wine Values
- Wine Traveler: Merlot
- Exclusive France Tours: California Wines vs. French Wines
- VinePair: Learn About Malbec, the Popular Red Wine
- The Wine Cellar Insider: Merlot Wine Grapes, Flavor, Character, History, Food Pairing Tips
- The Wine Cellar Insider: Cabernet Sauvignon Wine Grapes, Flavor, Character, History, Food Pairings