Which is Sweeter: Chardonnay or Merlot? (Key Differences)

Merlot and Chardonnay are dry wines, which means they have little to no residual sugar content, so the question of which is “sweeter” is not easily answered.

Both are varieties of wine meant for drinkers who prefer dryness over sweetness; however, that’s not to say these wines are wholly astringent or bitter.

The Merlot and Chardonnay have fruity flavors, which gives them the impression of being sweeter than they are.

Although they both have somewhat fruity flavors, they have notes of different fruits. Typically, the Chardonnay has a tropical taste with an underlay of honey, while the Merlot has a cherry-based flavor with a chocolate or mocha finish.

So while they are fruity, dry wines, the taste of these popular vinos aren’t differentiated by their sweetness but by their flavors. Let’s delve into the key differences between these dry wines.

Chardonnay

Chardonnay is the most popular white wine in the world. It is made from an incredibly versatile grape that can grow in various climates: this is evidenced by the fact that it is grown all over the world.

The Chardonnay grapes are rarely blended with other grapes, except in champagne and sparkling wines. The Chardonnay is a dry, medium to full-bodied wine with fruity flavors and moderate alcohol and tannins.

Merlot

The Merlot is one of the world’s most popular red wines. Often described as a soft, elegant wine, the Merlot can be a single-variety wine wherein Merlot grapes are dominant or a blending agent wherein the Merlot grapes are used for taking the harsh edges off other red wines, e.g., Cabernet Sauvignon.

It is a medium to full-bodied wine with moderate alcohol contents, velvety tannins, a plummy taste, and pronounced berry flavors with a chocolate finish.

Differences in Grapes and Production Processes

The difference in grape and fermentation processes gives the Chardonnay and Merlot their different tastes and textures.

While they are both fermented until there’s little to no residual sugar left in a bid to attain dryness, different parts of the grapes are used to produce each wine.

The Merlot is a purplish red or dark blue grape variety, and the Merlot wine is made from the juice, skins, and seeds of these grapes.

On the other hand, Chardonnay is a golden or green-skinned grape variety, and the Chardonnay wine is produced from the grapes’ juice without using the skin or seeds.

Chardonnay

The homeland of the Chardonnay grape is the Burgundy region of France.

This wine is white mainly because the winemakers crush and press the green-skinned grapes to remove the light-colored juice, and the absence of skins and seeds in the juice gives the wine its light color.

The Chardonnay can be processed either through barrel fermentation or the malolactic process. Fermenting this white wine in barrels (oak, preferably) gives it structure and adds tannin.

It will also add some new flavors like vanilla to the wine, but we will get to that later. The malolactic fermentation gives the Chardonnay a buttery texture that lends depth and creaminess to the drink.

Malolactic fermentation involves a process in which malic acid (which is naturally present in grapes) is converted into lactic acid, softening the acidity and tannin of the wine and giving it a softer texture and flavor.

This fermentation method uses bacteria to lower the acidity of the Chardonnay, creating a rounder and fuller mouthfeel.

These two fermentation methods can be merged to form a hybrid form of fermentation.

Wines fermented in this mixed manner typically boast of crisp apple flavors associated with malic acid, with a substratum of buttery/yogurt-like notes related to lactic acid.

Merlot

The Merlot wine is made from red grapes that originated in Bordeaux, France.

These grapes are crushed into a puppy mash called must: this must contain the juice, skins, and seeds of the Merlot grapes.

The must is left to ferment in a process called maceration, and the presence of the grape’s skin gives the Merlot its reddish color.

As mentioned, the Merlot can be a single-variety or a blended wine; if blended, the winemaker can decide to combine the must with other grapes before, during, or after fermentation.

Furthermore, some winemakers age Merlot in oak after fermentation. In contrast, others let the fermentation of the must take place in oak barrels: both processes give the Merlot its rich, oaky flavors.

Overview

The Merlot grape is often blended with various grapes; however, the Chardonnay isn’t. The Chardonnay can be imparted with a buttery taste through malolactic fermentation, while the Merlot tastes more oaky than buttery.

Also, the Chardonnay can be aged in either oak or stainless vats, while the Merlot is typically aged in oak.

Differences in Flavor and Aroma

Chardonnay

The Chardonnay naturally exhibits tropical fruity notes. This white wine is rich, textural, buttery, and fruity, with hints of lemon peel and orchard fruits.  

The differences in flavor and aroma of Chardonnay differ depending on where in the world the Chardonnay grapes were grown and how the wines were aged.

There are two main styles of Chardonnay:

Chardonnay aged in Oak Barrels:

This type of Chardonnay is often infused with notes of vanilla, toast, clove, and cinnamon. The oak-influenced white wine usually has a rich and lush texture, as well as a buttery and creamy mouthfeel.

The aroma of oak-influenced Chardonnay can range from citrus fruits like lemon to tropical fruits like mangoes, pineapples, guavas, and avocados.

Furthermore, Chardonnay aged in oak typically gets infused with more tannins giving this variety a drier and grittier mouthfeel.

Chardonnay aged in Stainless Steel:

Tank-fermented Chardonnay, also known as unoaked Chardonnay, is pure and crisp with pronounced green notes and subtle flavors of stone fruits like peach, plum, and apricot.

This white wine also gives off aromas of tropical fruits, as well as structured mineral notes. The lack of oak barrels explains the absence of vanilla flavors and notes of clove.

Chardonnays made in cooler climates are typically more acidic with pronounced citrus flavors.

These are produced in Germany, Canada, Chile, Austria, and France. On the other hand, in warmer climates, Chardonnays are less acidic with peach and pineapple flavors.

They have higher alcohol levels, and they can be found in Australia, South Africa, California, and Spain.

Merlot

The taste of the Merlot is heavily influenced by its origin, with different Merlot wines exuding characteristics peculiar to the regions they were made.

The primary flavors of Merlot include black cherry, raspberry, plum, blackberry, chocolate, vanilla, fig, and bay leaf.

The Merlot has a soft, smooth taste which is elevated by the fruity aroma of berries, plum, and cherries, as well as an underlay of vanilla that gives this red wine a silky and pleasantly creamy mouthfeel.

Merlot wines made in cooler climates are known as Old World Merlot. These medium-bodied wines have higher tannins and intense mineral notes, with a hint of earthy flavors.

They are generally fresher than Merlot made in warmer climates. Old World Merlot has herbaceous flavors and pronounced mint notes that give it a spicy impression.

Merlot wines produced in warmer climates are known as New World Merlot.

These wines tend to be medium-plus to full-bodied, with pronounced fruity flavors and a dominant aroma of cherries and plum; they also have lower tannin levels.

New World Merlot is sweeter, creamier, and heavier than the Old World Merlot.

Like most red wines, the Merlot is aged in Oak, giving it smoky undertones of mocha, cocoa, and cedar.

Final Overview

The Chardonnay and Merlot have fruity flavors; however, the Chardonnay tastes and smells like tropical or citric fruits, while the Merlot has pronounced flavors of berries and cherries with an underlay of vanilla and chocolate.

The merlot can have herbaceous notes, but it is uncommon in Chardonnay.

Differences in Food Pairings

The meals paired with your wine contribute to its overall taste and perceived sweetness. One of the critical differences between Chardonnay and Merlot is the types of dishes they pair best with: Chardonnay pairs best with light, buttery meals or fish-based dishes, while Merlot can handle full-bodied meals or meat-based dishes.

Best Dishes to Pair Chardonnay With

Let’s examine them:

Chardonnay is one of those wines delicious enough to be drunk on their own and versatile enough to pair brilliantly with some meals. Different Chardonnay varieties pair best with different meals:

Young, acid-driven Chardonnay pairs wonderfully with light and delicate food such as raw and lightly cooked shellfish like prawns and crabs.

They also go well with lightly prepared fish and even oysters.

Crisp, unoaked Chardonnay has a smooth buttery taste that pairs well with chicken or pork cooked in creamy sauces, chicken or cheese-based salads, goat cheese, or mild buttery sauces.

Oaked Chardonnay can handle and will complement bold cheeses like bleu cheese or cheddar cheese.

When pairing Chardonnay, spicy foods like tomato-based dishes, Chinese meals, and smoked fish and meats should be avoided. Meals with high acidic levels will cause your Chardonnay to taste sour.

Foods with rich, buttery flavors are your best bet when looking to pair your Chardonnay, as your wine will complement your meal and vice versa.

Best Dishes to Pair Merlot With

This red, dry wine is incredibly flexible regarding food pairings. Due to having soft tannins, the Merlot can handle richly sauced dishes like steak in red wine sauce.

Medium-bodied Merlot or blended Merlot can be paired with pizza, cheese-based meals, pasta dishes with tomato-based sauces, grilled chicken, pork, etc.

Merlot-dominated blends or single-variety Merlot can handle fuller body dishes, such as roast lamb, beef, veal, bison, or venison.

Furthermore, the impression of sweetness is enhanced in Merlot when it is paired with chocolate-based desserts, especially melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cakes or pies.

Merlot is often thought of as the fruity element that makes a meal pop; therefore, it can go with a variety of meal types, including fruits and desserts.

Flexibility

The Merlot is more flexible than Chardonnay when it comes to food pairings.

Due to low acidity and tannins, the Merlot can be paired with meals that range from sweet to spicy; however, the Merlot does not pair well with delicate seafood like fish or oysters, light salads, dishes with high sugar content, or citric-based dishes.

Conversely, Chardonnay is best paired with light meals like seafood and buttery sauces and should not be paired with spicy or acidic meals.

How Are They Best Served?

Chardonnay is generally best served chilled. Unoaked Chardonnay tastes best when chilled to 48°F / 9°C and then served.

On the other hand, oaked Chardonnay with fuller bodies do best when cooled to 57°F / 14°C.

Nonetheless, Chardonnay has refreshing qualities and if you want to maximize this aspect, go for the colder end of the spectrum.

If you want to maximize the wine’s fruity flavors, go for the warmer end of the spectrum, and keep it closer to room temperature.

Furthermore, unoaked Chardonnay can be adequately drunk with a smaller bowled glass like the typical white wine glass; however, the oaked Chardonnay is best drunk with a glass with a larger bowl to emphasize the wine’s creamy texture.

Merlot should be served a little cooler than room temperature, at about 60° to 65°F: this temperature lets you experience the full flavor of the Merlot without any of the flavors getting muted or muddled.

An aged Merlot needs to be decanted and aerated for about 20 minutes before being drunk to open up the aromas and soften the tannins.

Furthermore, the Bordeaux glass is the best wineglass for capturing the full aromas and flavors of a Merlot, and it tends to taste smoother from a glass with a wide opening.

Conclusion: Which is Sweet: Chardonnay or Merlot?

Both the Chardonnay and Merlot wines are dry wines made from grape varieties that originated from the same grapevine: Vitis vinifera.

However, their grape varieties, fermentation processes, aging techniques, and favored food pairings are vastly different.

These differences have led to uniqueness in flavors and aromas. The answer to which of these fruity wines is sweeter is challenging to answer as they both have little to no residual sugar present in them.

It all boils down to what you like: do you like your wine with tropical flavors? Or do you prefer your wine with a berry-based taste and a hint of chocolate?

These delicious, dry wines are common enough for you to try.

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