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Dear Dr. Vinny,

"Evolved," "tertiary," "fading": I find it difficult to categorize my wines into these headings when I’m writing my tasting notes for the WSET Assessment of Quality. Any help would be much appreciated!

—Mairin, Belmullet, Ireland

Dear Mairin,

For those that don’t recognize the acronym, Mairin is participating in the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, which means Mairin is a bigger wine geek than most of us. The WSET system for tasting wine breaks down wine tasting to a systematic approach. You consider a wine’s appearance, aromas and flavors, and texture and balance. In the overall impression of a wine, they suggest there’s a scale of freshness, from vivid on one end of the spectrum to dull and tired on the other end.

When a wine is described as vivid (or with the related terms vibrant, fresh, bright, juicy or zesty), I usually think it’s associated to the acidity of a wine. Acidity is one of the things that gives a wine structure and amplifies its flavors. It’s also a way to point out fruit flavors that are particularly resonant. Almost always, it describes wines that are young, before the perception of acidity and subsequent fruit flavors start to fade.

The three terms you’re asking about—evolved, tertiary and fading—are typically used for a wine with some bottle age. It depends on each individual wine when these notes start to show, but I typically can tell a wine has lost its baby fat by around the 10-year mark, if not sooner. This is what I’d call an “evolved” wine.

As a wine continues to age, the color fades or becomes browner and, if it merits aging and has been stored well, its fruit flavors move into the background as other notes become more prominent. The notes that develop during aging are called “tertiary” notes, and include floral, spice, earth and mineral aromas and flavors that develop later in a wine's life.

When a wine passes its peak—the fruit flavors have lost their freshness, and the tertiary notes themselves are less prominent—that’s when a wine is “fading.” The last stop is dull, before a wine is tired, or dead.

—Dr. Vinny

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