Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are two separate red grape varieties born in Bordeaux, France, in the 15th century. Many people view both as the royalty of the red wine world. Competition is fierce between the pair, like two siblings vying to be the golden child in the family.
We often find a bottle of wine that is 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, or 100 percent Merlot, but sometimes they are combined in a blend, a perfect marriage of distinct personalities – when done right.
Cabernet Sauvignon comes from a small and thick-skinned grape, which is produced ideally on gravel soil. Although its actual home is in the areas of Médoc and Pessac-Léognan in Bordeaux, we also notice many Cabernet Sauvignon plantings in the New World, notably California and Chile.
Most wineries use oak-barrel ageing. This does not make the Cabernet soft, but adjusts the wine to achieve an optimum level of acidity and bitterness, and adding aromas of, for example, vanilla. The wine is tannic (yielding a bitter and drying taste sensation) and is quite full bodied, with a distinct flavour profile of dark fruits and black/bell pepper.
Like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot is often aged in oak barrels or infused with oak chips. Merlot has a much lighter and fruitier flavour than Cabernet Sauvignon and is regularly blended with the latter to control the high tannins. Merlot is a very smooth, rounded grape varietal that exudes bursts of bright, fresh red fruit and some vegetal notes.
Cabernet has much bolder flavours, whereas Merlot remains soft; however, this quality is affected by where the grapes are grown. Climate has a significant influence. Wine made in cooler climates will be drier, earthier and more tannic, whereas wine from warmer climates will be much fruitier with less tannin.
When it comes to food pairing, delicate dishes like oily fish do not go well with the rich and full Cabernet Sauvignon, but high-protein meats, such a steak and venison, are the perfect complement to the tannins. Merlot, with its lighter tannin and sweeter notes is the perfect addition to Italian or tomato-based sauce dishes, such as lasagna and spaghetti bolognese.
My pick for Cabernet Sauvignon is by Errazuriz of the Aconcagua Valley in Chile, where their Max Reserve is priced at a generous €15. For Merlot, an excellent entry-level example can be enjoyed for €11 from Domaine de Castelnau in the Languedoc region of France. For me, the best of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend is from the Irish family-originated Château MacCarthy, from Saint-Estéphe in Bordeaux. At just under €28, this could just be the best value wine you’ve tried all year!
Philip Dunne is Head Sommelier at Ashford Castle, Cong. Trained by the Court of Master Sommeliers, he is part of the team voted the Best Wine Experience in Ireland 2016 at the Restaurant Association Awards in Ireland.