Zinfandel vs Merlot: What Are The 8 Important Differences To Know?

Zinfandel vs Merlot
This is our comparison of Zinfandel vs Merlot wine. Do you know what are the important difference to know? Let's find out!

This is our comparison of Zinfandel vs Merlot wine. We’ve extensively researched these two popular wines to help you pick the best for you.

Zinfandel is a black grape that comes typically in two red styles: Zinfandel in California and Primitivo in Italy.

Its flavor ranges from red fruits to black fruit depending on its ripening. It has full-body, high alcohol, with medium-high acidity and tannins.

Merlot is a very versatile grape. It’s used to produce light and fruity wines for immediate consumption, as well as more sophisticated wines that improve with bottle maturation and oak. 

Merlot is often blended with other grapes since it softens higher-tannins grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, for example.

Find below our wine guide on the most important differences between these two great wines.

Our recommendation for Best Value Zinfandel is The Prisoner Saldo Zinfandel and for Best Overall is Rombauer Vineyards Zinfandel Napa Valley.

Our recommendation for Best Value Merlot is Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot 2018 and for Best Overall is Château La Fleur-Pétrus Pomerol 2011.

You’ll find below other recommendations for you.

Let’s begin with the review!

Wine Selection Overview

Find below our Zinfandel vs Merlot wine selection for you where you’ll find our recommendation for you.

Zinfandel Selection

Robert Mondavi Private Selection Zinfandel 2019

It’s a very nice Zinfandel and offers a great value for money.

It’s round, deep with medium body and tannins and a long finish. Red and black fruits notes along with leather, vanilla, and oak.

The Prisoner Saldo Zinfandel

This ruby red Zinfandel blend represents the very best lots of grapes from vineyards all across Northern California.

Bold in its dark berry aroma and laced with hints of cardamom and fall spices, its finish has persistent notes of chocolate and rich coffee bean.

Rombauer Vineyards Zinfandel Napa Valley

Rich, vibrant, and juicy, this wine boasts aromas of cherry and wild berry, with soft notes of black pepper.

Tightly packed layers of cranberries, wild berries, and ripe cherries flow together with a touch of allspice for a rich, full flavor. Moderate tannins show in the rich, mouth filling finish.

Merlot Selection

Lohr Vineyards & Wines Los Osos Merlot 2017

Red fruit aromas of plum and pomegranate are integrated with a barrel signature of dark chocolate and baking spice.

Whole berry fermentation with a generous use of Malbec as a blender accentuates the brighter fruit tones of Merlot and leaves ripe, soft tannins on the palate.

Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot 2018

Aromatic, with vibrant red fruit layers of Rainier cherry and spiced plum, as well as notes of liquorice, tobacco leaf, cardamom and thyme.

This wine has smooth velvety texture and a sophisticated finish.

Château La Fleur-Pétrus Pomerol 2011

On the nose a tight core of black fruits, blackcurrants and dark cherries.

Beautifully textured on the palate, sweet and quite fleshy, supple and flattering.

Lots of ripe tannins but they are very well hidden by this layer of fruit, with a lovely sense of grip coming in.

Great acidity at the core. Wonderful structure and balance here, and an elegant substance to the finish.


Let’s now take a closer look at the difference between Zinfandel vs Merlot so that you’ll have enough details to make an informed decision.

Zinfandel vs Merlot: Where are they produced?

Here you’ll find a brief overview of Zinfandel vs Merlot from regions and wine styles points of view.

Zinfandel/Primitivo grows best in warm and sunny regions. The grape ripening has a direct effect on the taste profile of the wine.

  • Under-Ripe / Cool Climates: red fruit (raspberry, red berry) flavors.
  • Ripe / Warm Climates: black fruit (blackberry, blueberry), anise, and black pepper flavors.

Regions and winemaking techniques influence Zinfandel taste profiles. Here is a quick overview of the main regions and what to expect:

  • USA (California) Zinfandel flavors: Black fruit (Black cherry, blackberry) black pepper, vanilla.
  • Italy (Puglia) Primitivo flavors: Black fruit (Black cherry, blue raspberry, plum), red fruit, cinnamon, black pepper, licorice.

Find more about Zinfandel here.

Merlot is planted all over the world given its versatility. Merlot gives it best in moderate to warm climates. Climates will have a direct effect on the Merlot taste profile. 

Here is a quick overview:

In cool climates, like Bordeaux in France, expect ruby color, light-medium body, higher acidity, red fruit (raspberry, cherry) flavors.

Common tertiary notes are spice, leather, coffee, and licorice.

In warm climates, like California, expect deep ruby color, medium-full body, pronounced black fruit (blackberry, blueberry, plum) flavors, velvety tannins.

Typical tertiary notes are vanilla, coconut, and smoke.

Find more about Merlot here.

Zinfandel vs Merlot: Which grapes are used to produce them?

Here you’ll find a brief overview of Zinfandel vs Merlot from a grape point of view.

Zinfandel is produced from Zinfandel or Primitivo grapes depending on the region.

Merlot is produced from Merlot grapes.

Both are red-wine grape varieties of the species Vitis vinifera.

Zinfandel vs Merlot: What's their alcohol content?

Here you’ll find a brief overview of Zinfandel vs Merlot from an alcohol content point of view.

Alcohol content or more precisely Alcohol By Volume, i.e. ABV, measures the alcoholic strength of a drink.

There is a direct relationship between the sugar left in the wine after the alcoholic fermentation has taken place, i.e. Residual Sugar or RS, and ABV.

During the alcoholic fermentation, the yeast transforms the sugar in the grape juice into alcohol. 

Grapes with high residual sugar will therefore produce dry wine with a high ABV.

Zinfandel’s ABV is usually between 13% to 17%, whereas Merlot’s ABV ranges between 13.5% to 15% depending on the style. 

Zinfandel vs Merlot: What's their taste profile?

Here you’ll find a brief overview of Zinfandel vs Merlot from a taste profile point of view.

Zinfandel is a dry wine with deep garnet color.

Zinfandel flavor ranges from red fruits when unripe to black fruit when ripe. Other typical notes are star anise, black pepper and peach yogourt.

It has full-body, high alcohol, with medium-high acidity and tannins. 

Merlot is a dry wine with a medium to deep ruby color.

You can find both wines with red fruit, like raspberry, and herbaceous flavors, as well as wines with pronounced black fruit flavors, like black cherry and plum.

Chocolate, cocoa, mocha, graphite are typical Merlot tertiary flavors. 

Merlot is typically more velvety than Malbec, as its tannins are generally medium-low. 

#4 - Zinfandel vs Merlot: Are they sweet or dry?l

Here you’ll find a brief overview of Zinfandel vs Merlot in terms of sweetness level or residual sugar.

The sweetness level of a wine is expressed in grams of sugar per liter, aka g/L, or as a percentage.

10 g/L equals 1% which, if you are interested, represents 6 calories per 5 oz serving. 

You will usually find both Zinfandel and Merlot as dry wines.

A dry wine contains less than 15 g/L.

Learn more about wine sweetness level here.

Zinfandel vs Merlot: Which are the right food pairings?

Here you’ll find a brief overview of Zinfandel vs Merlot from a food pairings point of view.

Both Zinfandel and Merlot are versatile wines and pair very well with many dishes. 

Zinfandel/Primitivo likes bold flavors and pairs well with pizza rustica, spice curry, and caramelized onions for example.

Meat wise I’d recommend you try it with quail, turkey, pork, BBQ, veal, and Tandoori-spiced food to name some.

You’ll find that some will have it with blackened salmon and spicy tuna tartare.

Given its boldness, you need to pick cheese with strong flavors like Gorgonzola, Grana Padano and Cheddar for example.

Merlot pairs well with ratatouille, bean dishes, pasta, pizza with mushrooms, and agnolotti for examples. 

Meat wise you have an ample selection of dishes too from roast veal, braised pork, venison, duck, or a juicy burger. 

Cheese-wise Merlot pairs well with Camembert, Gorgonzola, and Parmigiano Reggiano for example.

Zinfandel vs Merlot: How should you serve and store them?

Here you’ll find a brief overview of Zinfandel vs Merlot in terms of serving and storing the wine.

Zinfandel should be decanted for 30 minutes and served at 59 – 64 °F (15 – 18 °C) in a Bordeaux glass.[1]

The recommended storing period is up to 5 years.

Merlot should be decanted for 30 minutes and served at 59 – 64 °F (15 – 18 °C) in a Bordeaux glass. 

The recommended storing period is between 3 to 5 years for normal bottles and 10+ years for the finest bottles.

Zinfandel vs Merlot: How much do they cost?

Here you’ll find a brief overview of Zinfandel vs Merlot from a price comparison point of view.

Zinfandel/Primitivo is an affordable wine. You’ll find good quality wines for around:

  • $12-$20 price range for the Italian’s style.
  • $15-$30 range price for the Californian’s style.

Merlot on the other side is hardly inexpensive.

Merlot from Chile, California (Sonoma), France, and Italy are generally good entry-level bottles up to $30.

Great quality bottles can be found for up to $100 usually from California, France, and Italy.

Outstanding bottles over $100+ are usually from Italy and France, like Bordeaux, where the finest bottles reach and pass the $1,000.

Our Verdict

If you have been through the guide, by now you are a Zinfandel vs Merlot expert!

Both Zinfandel/Primitivo and Merlot are great wines and by now you should have a good idea of what to expect from them.   

Our recommendation is therefore based on what you’d fancy the most at a particular given moment or event. 

Zinfandel is generally a common choice for BBQ and bold flavor dishes as seen above.

Our recommendation for Best Value Zinfandel is The Prisoner Saldo Zinfandel and for Best Overall is Rombauer Vineyards Zinfandel Napa Valley.

You cannot resist the softness of a Merlot, can you? Well then Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot is exactly what’s needed for you.

It’s a fantastic bottle of Merlot at an extremely reasonable price. 

If course you are after something absolutely exceptional, Château La Fleur-Pétrus Pomerol 2011 is our recommendation for you, knowing that you’ll not be disappointed.

As always make sure to serve them at the right temperature to enjoy them at their best.

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