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

Ask Dr Vinny

Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, but you can call me Vinny. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the fine points of etiquette to the science of winemaking. And don't worry, I'm no wine snob—you can also ask me those "dumb questions" you're too embarrased to ask your wine geek friends! I hope you find my answers educational, empowering and even amusing. And don't forget to check out my most asked questions and my full archives for all my Q&A classics.

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

More In Dr. Vinny

Once chilled, must a wine stay chilled? Is it ruined if it warms up again?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny debunks the myth that wine shouldn't be chilled and then …

Jun 27, 2022

Does Pinot Noir come in both red and white versions? Are they the same grape?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains how red wines get their color. (Hint: It's not …

Jun 22, 2022

If you're supposed to hold a wineglass by the stem, why are stemless glasses so popular?

Wine Spectator's resident wine expert Dr. Vinny explains the pros and cons of stemless …

Jun 13, 2022

How much do our taste buds influence our perception of wine?

Wine Spectator's resident wine expert Dr. Vinny explains how taste sensitivity impacts our …

Jun 6, 2022

What's the shelf life of a box of wine?

Wine Spectator's resident wine expert, Dr. Vinny, explains why box wines aren't meant to …

May 31, 2022

Should I refill my own wineglass, or ask the host or server to?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains the etiquette or wine service, for hosts and for …

May 23, 2022