When picking out which red wine you want to drink, you may be considering drinking either a shiraz or a merlot. Both wines are great choices and taste amazing if made properly. But what are the differences between Shiraz and merlot? Which is better, Shiraz vs merlot?
The simple answer is that Shiraz tends to be bolder, with less residual sugar and higher alcohol content. Shiraz tends to be more full-bodied with higher tannins and a powerful flavor. Merlot on the other hand is medium-bodied with lighter flavor notes, such as cooked fruits and currant.
But there are many other differences between Shiraz vs Merlot. And lucky for you, we will be covering all of them in this article! Not only do they taste different, but they also tend to have different alcohol contents as well as aging properties. We’ll also go over which dishes pair best with shiraz vs merlot.
Let’s get started.
Differences in Taste for Shiraz and Merlot
As we mentioned above, Shiraz and merlot are both red wines but have very different flavor components. Let’s go into detail on the different tasting notes you will often find in both Shiraz and Merlot.
Shiraz Tasting Notes
The first thing you may notice when first open a Shiraz is a very interesting nose. Some Shiraz will smell like a normal full-bodied red wine (cooked fruits, cherries, and grape), while others will have a very distinct menthol smell.
Author Note: That’s right! Think of menthol cigarettes. This is a hallmark of full-bodied Australian Shiraz. This nose will translate over to the palette as an immediate mint and menthol hit when you first taste the wine. Some tasters describe it as a quick toothpaste hit.
After the initial nose, Shiraz opens up to a be powerful red, with notes of cooked fruits and cherry, then moving into leather and earth notes with a long and strong finish. It’s definitely not a wine for the faint of heart!
Merlot Tasting Notes
What is funny when comparing merlot to shiraz is that with many other wines, you would consider merlot to be the stronger character in the room. But shiraz completely blows it out.
Merlot is known to be the most relaxed of the red wines, with a smooth and easy flavor profile. Most merlots have a delicate nose, with lighter fruit tones and stewed fruits. The first flavors you’ll usually get from merlot are berry, plum, and currant. It then usually gently recedes with a smooth but shorter finish.
We like to think of merlots as a red trainer wine. What do we mean by this? We’ll since merlots have a more gentle flavor profile, they are great wines for tasters that might not like other red wines. We consider them our gateway reds.
Merlot also got a bad reputation from the movie Sideways. One of the main characters hates merlot.
Alcohol Content for Shiraz vs Merlot
Another big difference between Shiraz and merlot is the amount of residual sugar and alcohol each contains. Residual sugar is the amount of sugar that is left over in the wine after the fermentation process completes. More residual sugar means a more full-bodied, sweeter, and usually less alcoholic flavor profile.
As you can probably guess from what you’ve read already (or if you’ve drunk shiraz before), shiraz almost always will have a higher alcohol content than merlot. It’s not uncommon for shiraz to have between 13% and 15% alcohol in it. The higher alcohol content is also usually accompanied by lower residual sugar than merlot as well.
Author Note: Both the higher alcohol and lower residual sugar are hallmark components of shiraz’s big and bold flavor. This makes sense as well because the process of fermentation is turning residual sugar into alcohol. So the more alcohol a wine has, usually the less sugar is left over.
Merlot, on the other hand, has a much more gentle flavor profile. So what do expect its alcohol content to be? That’s right, it’s lower. Merlot usually has between 13% and 14.5% alcohol in it. Merlot also usually has more residual sugar, which gives it a more subtle flavor profile.
As with all wines, however, there will be examples that fall out of the usual range we estimate. If you find an especially strong merlot or a light shiraz, let us know about them in the comments below.
Does More Residual Sugar Always make Wine Sweet?
This is actually kind of a trick question because the answer is not always. The comparison of Shiraz vs merlot is actually a great example of where wine with less residual sugar might taste “sweeter” than wine with more residual sugar.
How does this work? It has to do with how we taste the alcohol in the wine. The more alcohol content a wine has, the “sweeter” and more full-bodied it tastes. This means that shiraz usually tastes sweeter than merlot, even though merlot usually has more residual sugar in it.
So don’t always rely on what your nose and taste buds are telling you. Often times when a red wine tastes sweet it just means it has a higher alcohol content in it.
What Does Shiraz vs Merlot Pair Well With?
Now that you know what the hallmark flavors and alcohol content are for both shiraz and merlot, let’s go over what pairs well with each wine varietal. After all, some of the most fun you can have while drinking wine is to explore how the flavor changes with different foods!
Foods That Pair Well with Shiraz
Let’s start with shiraz. As we mentioned above, shiraz has a very strong and powerful flavor profile. It’s high in both bold fruit flavors as well as tannins. This means it will go great with foods that also have strong flavors. We’ll list some of them below.
- Steak (medium rare obviously).
- Roast beef
- Smoked meats (brisket is unreal)
- Cheddar cheese
- Smoked cheeses
- Hamburger with bacon
As you can see, the foods you pair with shiraz and not for weak constitutions. But neither is shiraz! Proceed with caution, and revel in the decadence.
Foods That Pair Well with Merlot
Merlot, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as bold as shiraz. Because it has a more gentle flavor profile, we recommend enjoying it with lighter foods that also have more nuanced flavors. We’ll list some of our favorites below.
- Mushroom pasta
- Baked chicken
- Mild cheeses
Many of these options go well with a variety of wines (like seafood, which goes well with many white wines as well). This makes merlot a bit more versatile than Shiraz.
Where is Shiraz vs Merlot Grown?
As you might guess, shiraz and merlot are grown in very different regions. Since shiraz needs a lot of sugar in its grapes to produce its high alcohol content and bold flavors, it is typically grown in warmer climates.
Merlot is the opposite, thriving in more temperate climates where the subtle flavors of the grape can flourish.
Let’s go over which regions each are grown in.
Regions Shiraz is Grown
Shiraz is typically grown in Northern California, France’s Rhone Valley, and of course Australia. These regions all have long growing seasons with hot summers, which help the Shiraz grape develop its strong sugar and flavor profile.
Regions Merlot is Grown
Author Note: Conversely, merlot is typically grown in regions with lighter climates. The Bordeaux region France (probably merlots most famous region), Northern California, Washington, Chile, Italy, and also Australia. For the regions that overlap with shiraz, the grapes are often in a different part of the region.
What’s so interesting about wine regions is that they often have very stark microclimates. What do we mean by this? We mean that within several miles there can be very different conditions for growing grapes. Napa Valley is a prime example. If you go several miles closer to the coast, the temperature and climate are very mild – which makes it prime for merlot.
If you go north and inland several miles, however, the climate becomes much more harsh and hot. This makes it great for shiraz. This is also why there are very few regions in the world that can make truly great wine. Grapes are very articular and sensitive to growing conditions.
When comparing shiraz vs merlot, it’s hard for us to pick a favorite. They are both some of our favorite wines, with great examples of top-notch red wines in both varietals. What are our favorite shiraz and merlots? Glad you asked!
For shiraz, our favorite producer is Penfolds from Australia. Penfolds is the quintessential shiraz that has all the shiraz flavor hallmarks. They are also one of the largest producers of Shiraz, so you should be able to find them at your local wine purveyor. They aren’t cheap, however!
For merlot, our favorite producer is Duckhorn Vineyards from Napa Valley in California. Their Three Palms Merlot won Wine Spectator’s wine of the year in 2017 and is one of the best examples of a flagship merlot out there. Truly one of the best merlots you can drink.
But there are tons of other great merlots and shiraz out there, so we recommend you try them on your own and let us know which you like the most!
We hope you found this article on the differences between Shiraz vs merlot informative and useful. Next time you’re trying to decide which wine to order at a restaurant or buy from your local wine shop, you now know what to expect from each.
And if you find one of either you really like, let us know about it in the comments below.
To living a full-bodied life,