What do you mean by “secondary” and “tertiary" notes in wine?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

What do you mean by “secondary” and “tertiary" notes in wine? Are they (or at least the latter) always used in conjunction with aging? Or can people use them to mean "not the primary note at this time," even if it's young?

—Jess W., New York

Dear Jess,

I don’t hear folks talk about wine in these terms very often, but when I do it’s usually in conjunction with how a wine is aging.

A wine’s “primary” flavors are those considered to come directly from the grapes—blackberry, lemon, plum, apricot, etc.—all those fruit flavors—and also some herb or floral notes. This makes a lot of sense, since wine is made from grapes, grapes are fruits, and you’d expect that the primary flavors from wine would reflect that.

“Secondary” flavors are what you would expect come from the winemaking process—fermentation, malolactic conversion, and especially the influence of oak—think toast, vanilla, cedar, spice, mocha or coconut.

As wine ages, the primary flavors move into the background, and other notes become more prominent; those are called “tertiary” notes. They tend to stray further from the fruit flavors into more complex versions of earth, mineral, mushrooms, nuts, floral and spice. Here’s a hint: When folks start talking about tertiary notes, they start to shift from referring to how a wine smells as its “aroma” to its “bouquet.”

Unless you’re hanging around wine collectors who drink a lot of aged wines, the terms “bouquet” and “tertiary” don’t often come up. But it’s not that unusual for someone to describe which parts of a wine are primary vs. secondary.

—Dr. Vinny

Ask Dr. Vinny

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