What is the Difference between Merlot and Pinot Noir?

Merlot and pinot noir are two of the world’s most celebrated and popular red wines, so it’s little surprise people often associate one with the other.

However, these staple reds have distinct, uniquely enjoyable personalities on account of their fundamental differences.

Let’s explore the pivotal characteristics of pinot noir vs. merlot to help you better understand where they come from, why they taste different and how you can pair them with your favorite meals:

Merlot Characteristics

By measure of total vineyard area, merlot is the world’s second most-planted variety. By measure of popularity, it’s America’s go-to red wine (according to recent YouGov polls).

This cherished grape accounts for more than 250,000 hectares (~around 650,000 acres) of international growing regions. It also holds a monumental share of the global wine market, where it continues to grow in popularity every year.

What makes this classic vino so beloved?

Let’s explore its home regions, tasting profile and ideal culinary pairings to find out:

Notable Merlot Growing Regions


France is the undisputed home of merlot, as the historic European wine country produces over two-thirds of the world’s supply.

This red wine grape especially thrives in Southwestern France, where the prolific regions of Bordeaux, Cahors and Bergerac produce it in mass quantities.


Merlot is among the many celebrated varieties found across the legendary vineyards of the vino mecca of Italy. Despite stiff competition, it’s the country’s fifth most-planted grape.

The variety mainly thrives in the regions of Tuscany, Friuli and Veneto.

United States

In the New World wine powerhouse of the United States, the state of California reigns supreme, producing 81% of the national wine supply.

Unsurprisingly, the golden state also houses most US merlot production, particularly in sub-regions like Napa Valley and Sonoma.

Tasting Notes

Merlot is a varietal that comfortably falls into several delightful middle grounds on the scale of red wines.

This vino is well structured, with a medium to full body, and offers smooth, enjoyable tannins alongside dashes of acidity.

Unlike bolder reds, there’s little chance of a merlot overwhelming your palate or food. Unlike lighter reds, it’s doubtful to underwhelm you or pale in comparison to your meal. This makes merlot the perfect middle-ground!

Beyond its structure, merlot offers a wide range of diverse flavors, but those you find in your bottle will significantly depend on the climate of its home region:

Warm-climate merlot is a moderately tannic, fruit-forward wine combining flavors of black cherry, plum and blackberry with baking accents of vanilla, cinnamon and allspice, herbaceous hints of pyrazines (leafy green flavors) and very subtle floral notes.

On the other hand, cool-climate merlot has a firmer structure with more prominent tannins accompanying ripe fruit flavors like raspberry, blueberry or fig, bitter hints of dark chocolate and coffee, prominent floral notes and a pleasant earthiness.

Merlot Pairing Guide

Now that you know where the best merlot comes from and better understand its complex flavor profile, let’s dive into some pairings.

Here are a few meals that work marvelously with a bottle of this beloved red:

Roast Beef

Merlot’s bold but friendly personality makes it an excellent companion to delicious roast beef.

Unlike lighter red wines (e.g., pinot noir) or their bolder counterparts (e.g., cabernet sauvignon), merlot’s taste harmonizes with the flavors and aromas of this meaty dish without under or overwhelming them.

Shepherd’s Pie

Shepherd’s Pie is a classic British dish, but it pairs wonderfully with excellent merlot from mainland Europe, California, South America and beyond.

The fruity flavors and herbaceous overtones of this red vino work beautifully to take this combination of minced meat and mashed potato to the next culinary level.

Milk or Dark Chocolate

If you’ve got a sweet tooth and a soft spot for chocolate, you’re in luck: few wines pair better with cocoa treats than merlot.

Opt for medium-bodied styles with subtle milk chocolates and marry fuller-bodied options with bold dark chocolates.

Pinot Noir

Pinot noir is also among the world’s most famous wines, and it is very easy to see why.

Often deemed a perfect entry point into the complex world of red wine, this iconic varietal may have more crossover appeal than any of its brethren.

What makes the best pinot noir so esteemed?

Let’s dive into this wine’s growing regions, flavor profile and ultimate pairings for answers:

Notable Pinot Noir Growing Regions


Like merlot, pinot noir is a born-and-raised French variety with centuries of history in the region.

This grape particularly thrives in the country’s Champagne region, but it is also plentiful throughout Burgundy and Alsace.

United States

As with most American varieties, California dominates US pinot noir production.

The variety particularly thrives in smaller sub-regions of the massive state, like the Russian River Valley, Sonoma and Occidental Bridge.


Germany is an underrated growing region amongst wine newbies but a steadfast favorite among pinot noir lovers.

Look for bottles of this red from (relatively) warmer regions in the Southern half of the country, like the Pfalz or Baden.

Tasting Notes

The famously dry pinot noir subverts some iconic characteristics of traditional red vino:

It typically features a light to medium body, relatively low tannin levels and prominent acidity, a trio of traits commonly associated with white wine.

However, this approachable structure belies an irresistible bouquet of flavors even stronger than merlot’s, composing a symphony for the senses.

Each sip of this red wine offers juicy, red fruit flavors of cranberry, raspberry and cherry, sweet hints of licorice, vanilla and caramel, prominent earthy notes of mushroom, clove and leaves and floral accents of hibiscus.

Whether you love bold reds with all your heart or usually prefer the comfort of a lighter white, the pinot noir might just be the perfect middle ground vino for your collection.

Pinot Noir Pairing Guide

You know where pinot noir comes from and what makes it so delicious, so now let’s meet some of its most delicious culinary companions:

Pork Tenderloin

As far as meaty dishes go, pork tenderloin is a milder option featuring a delicious balance of relatively delicate flavors.

As such, it perfectly complements the gentle structure and lovely fruit flavors of a delectable pinot noir.


An elegant yet earthy pinot noir tastes excellent alongside several varieties of mushrooms.

We suggest pairing with shiitake, porcini or chanterelle mushrooms as part of a larger meal - - they go particularly well with lamb - - or as a lovely dish on their own.

Grilled Salmon

If you research food-wine pairings, you will likely read that red wine and fish are a no-go combination - - with few exceptions.

Well, grilled salmon and pinot noir might be the quintessential exception.

This light but flavorful red wine perfectly balances the pink, buttery fish's meaty texture and rich flavor to create one delicious rule-breaker.

Wine Insiders: Your Home for World-Class Wine

Now that you understand key similarities and differences between pinot noir and merlot, it’s time to expand your vino horizons and check out Wine Insiders’ diverse collection of fantastic varietals and blends from across the globe.

From 6 and 12-bottle sets mixing diverse, delicious wines from across the world to exclusive collections curated by experts like Martha Stewart, Ludo Lefebvre and Geoffrey Zakarian, we have the vino you need to spoil your taste buds and take any meal to the next level.

For more information about wine, tasting notes and more - check out our entire library of Wine 101 Guides!