​Merlot vs. Syrah: Where the Sidewalk Ends or For Whom the Bell Tolls?

​Merlot vs. Syrah: Where the Sidewalk Ends or For Whom the Bell Tolls?

Posted by Matteo Lahm on 19th Mar 2024

If you've ever found yourself scratching your head on a wine kit page, wondering if you should try making a Merlot or a Syrah, you're in the right place. You may have thought to yourself, they are both noble reds so how different can they be? Well, let's start by saying that assuming their similarity could not be further from the truth.

Once you get beyond the hue of the wine, be prepared to encounter two very different viticultural personalities. Let's put things into perspective. You have friends who are great to socialize and celebrate with, and others with whom you like to talk philosophy and politics around a campfire. They are quite different, yet you really enjoy them equally. So, the question is not whether you should make one or the other, it is why you should make both.

First off, let's talk about the grapes. Merlot, that soft and fleshy little fruit, ripens early and is a type of social butterfly as reds go, often blending with the late bloomers like Cabernet Sauvignon. Syrah, on the other hand, is the strong, silent type. It is friendlier when used for blending but, it is also a formidable conversationalist by itself. If you wanted to compare them to famous writers, Merlot is Shel Silverstein and Syrah is Ernest Hemingway.

Now, where do these grapes feel most at home? Merlot is a jet-setter, grown extensively in the Bordeaux region of France, but also found sunning itself in Italy, Romania, the United States, Chile, and Australia. Syrah prefers the climates of California and Australia, but also enjoys a good French vacation in the Rhone Valley.

When it comes to flavor, Merlot is the welcoming committee for beginner tasters. It's a medium-bodied wine with a velvety mouthfeel that whispers hints of berries, plum, and currant. It's like a fruity, delicate dessert that doesn't overwhelm your palate.

Syrah, however, is the bold, full-bodied bad boy of wines. It's got earthy qualities of pepper, truffle, and leather, and it's dense, plentiful, and intense. It's like a rock concert for your taste buds, with more tannins playing the lead guitar.

Now, let's talk food pairings. Merlot is the life of the party, pairing well with just about anything. Sweeter, fruitier Merlots are great with salmon, mushroom dishes, and veggies like chard. Light-bodied Merlots can even hang with shellfish like shrimp or scallops, and they're not afraid to mingle with bacon or ham. Just keep them away from strong, blue cheeses – they tend to steal Merlot's fruity thunder.

Syrah, being the bold and powerful type, prefers to hang out with red meats, steaks, game meats, and thick stews. It's the wine you want by your side when you're tackling a hearty meal.

When it comes to fermentation, both varietals enjoy warmer peak internal temperatures. Merlot likes to cozy up at a balmy 82-86 degrees Fahrenheit. This goldilocks zone is where Merlot best expresses its potential. Syrah prefers a slightly wider range of 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit. This allows the yeast to bring out Syrah's bold, earthy flavors and robust tannins.

If these temperatures seem a bit hotter than what you are used to, that is understandable. Most wine kit instructions recommend you stay in the 70’s, and it is because that is a safe temperature range. Once you push the envelope into the 80’s, you can really make some magic happen but, if you don’t keep your hands on the reigns, you might have a runaway horse on your hands. If you exceed those temperatures, there is the risk of the wine finishing with medicine-like flavors you do not want. So, if you are feeling frisky and daring, just make sure you have the means to cool things off before your yeast has a steamier romance than it can handle.

So, now you’re on a first name basis with Merlot and Syrah, two red wines with their own unique personalities. Merlot is the easy-going type with versatile pairings, while Syrah is the feisty, earthy character that's a bit more confrontational.

So, next time you're buying a wine kit, you'll know your Merlots from your Syrahs. And remember, if you are a foodie, you like a lot of variety! That means you should give both a try. Bottle some separately and blend the rest. You’ll get a great variety that will appeal to different palettes and pair with a wide range of cuisine. Cheers, and buon appetito. 

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