How to Understand the Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Aromas in Wine

As featured on Wine Enthusiast

Wine has three levels of flavors and aromas that evolve over the course of its life: primary, secondary and tertiary.

Younger wines display primary fruit flavors and aromas. These include black, red and dried fruit in red wines. For white wines, they can offer scents and flavors of green apples, plus citrus, tropical and stone fruits, and underripe fruits of all kinds. Primary aromas are the most obvious to detect in young wines, and they’re often what sparks interest in wine drinkers. Herbs and spices, like mint, pepper or licorice, are also part of the primary category.

How To Taste Wine - Wine Tasting Tips from Wine Enthusiast ...

Secondary aromas and flavors derive from winemaking processes like fermentation and aging. These can include the biscuit and yeasty notes that appear from lees stirring and autolysis (the effect when yeast dies off), or the very distinct buttery popcorn aroma that’s a byproduct of malolactic fermentation in many Chardonnays. It also encapsulates the wonderful characteristics that are imparted by oak aging, like vanilla, clove, smoke, coconut or even coffee.

The last of the three levels of aromas and flavors is tertiary. These complex components occur when wine is aged in an ideal environment.

In red wines, fresh ripe fruit starts to transform into stewed or dried fruit, like raisin or fig. Tertiary aromas of tobacco, earth and mushroom will come about, too.

Primary secondary tertiary wine aromas

White wines start to develop dried apricot, orange marmalade and sometimes even maderized qualities, or Sherry-like notes of almonds and candied fruit. Other tertiary characteristics include nutty aromas as well as complex spice components like nutmeg, ginger and petrol.

It’s important to note that wines with tertiary aromas and flavors are not “better” than those with primary and secondary ones. Around 90% of wines are meant to be consumed young and fresh, while a small percentage of wines improve with three to 10 years in the bottle. Only a tiny amount of wines (some estimate as low as 1%) are meant to age 10 years or more.

If you are drawn to wines with fresh fruit, powerful tannins and a mouthfilling finish, you might generally prefer primary and secondary flavors and aromas. Be honest about your palate and preferences, and be confident to drink whatever and whenever you like.

Learn the Five S’s of Wine Tasting

Don’t be intimidated by all of those fancy wine descriptors or the swishing and swooshing sounds that the pros make while they taste. To evaluate wine, it all comes down to the “five S’s.”

Illustration by Ryan McAmis

 

 

Illustration of man with glasses looking at wine
Evaluating the wine’s visual qualities / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

See. Similar to a psychic who gazes into a crystal ball, inspecting wine in the glass can help predict much of what’s to come on the nose and palate. The color, depth and intensity of a wine can offer a glimpse into its age, concentration, body and overall style.

Hint: white wines gain color as they age, while red wines lose color.

Illustration of a couple swirling red and white wine
It’s all in the wrist / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Swirl. Swirling is integral to aerate the wine and allow oxygen to “open it up.” This seductive art reveals a wine’s complexities, and it will raise intensity in most young, opulent bottlings as well as those aged beauties. Better yet, when done properly, it will wow and potentially hypnotize those around you.

Illustration of a man evaluating a white wine's aroma
Technique that’s right on the nose / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Sniff/Smell. Don’t be afraid to shove your entire nose right into the glass. Wines with medium to pronounced intensity shouldn’t need such a deep dive, but others may be a little bashful at first. In these cases, revert back to Step No. 2 and swirl some more. Aroma is usually where you hear all those cool, eccentric wine termslike “cat pee,” “wet dog” and “grilled watermelon.”

Illustration of standing woman sipping red wine
A matter of good taste / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Sip. It takes a while to actually taste a wine during the examination process, but it’s often well worth the wait. Plus, all the prior steps should impart a pretty good idea of how the wine should come across on the palate.

When pros taste wine, you may notice some pretty off-putting and downright disgusting sounds, but there are reasons for it. The swishing, swooshing and gulping ensures that the wine hits all parts of the tongue and mouth. Thus, the taster can gauge sweetness, acidity, bitterness, tannins and identify the overall mouthfeel. Sucking in air allows for further aeration on the palate, and it helps volatile components be sensed by the olfactory system to tap in to all the characteristics of the wine.

Here, you look for primary characteristics (fruit, floral and spice), secondary characteristics (oak and fermentation-related flavors) and tertiary character (those that result from bottle aging, like mushroom, tobacco and nuttiness), depending on the age of the wine.

Illustration of couple savoring wine after sipping
Don’t forget to enjoy / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Savor. Here’s where the finish comes into play. You want to savor the final essence of a wine. Here, you not only look for length, but balance of fruit, acidity, tannin and texture. When a wine leaves you with an overwhelming desire for another sip, you know you’ve found a winner.

Final tip

If a young wine has a far superior finish than its taste on the palate, it probably needs a bit of aeration or even a little more time in the cellar.

Published on April 15, 2019
TOPICS:Wine Basics
About the Author
MARSHALL TILDEN III

From his first sips of wicker basket Chianti at his grandfather’s dinner table to a 1986 Premier Cru Gevrey-Chambertin, Tilden knew that there was something magical about wine. He earned his Diploma in Wine and Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators. Having been with Wine Enthusiast catalog since 2005, when he is not writing about wine he also runs the wine storage division and is head of W.E.’s in-house education program.