What's the difference between Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

My wife and I are just getting into the wine life, and we were wondering if you could explain in simplest terms what is the difference between a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon. I understand they are made from different grapes. Is that the main difference? Thanks much.

—D.J., Lincoln, Neb.

Dear D.J.,

You're correct that Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are different grapes. They are both red grapes, but they—and the wines made from them—have different personalities. One thing they have in common, though: They're both major grapes from the Bordeaux region of France. They are often blended together (sometimes with additional grapes) because while they can stand alone, they can also complement each other. Like peanut butter and jelly, or Sonny and Cher.

In general, Merlot is softer and more supple than Cabernet Sauvignon. The best examples balance lovely herb, cherry and chocolate flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon has a bit more backbone and tannic strength than Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon is admired for its intensity and classic flavors of currant, plum and spice, and it can also have distinguishing herb, olive, tobacco, cedar and anise notes, among others.

—Dr. Vinny

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