What is the difference between primary and secondary aromas?

Understanding wine aromas

Monica Selby, by email, asks: What is primary fruit and what is secondary fruit? How do I tell the difference? Is there such a thing as tertiary fruit?

Gerard Basset MW MS OBE, replies: Occasionally the word ‘fruit’ is used as a synonym for ‘aroma’ in wine, especially if its scent is very fruity.

However, the more common and correct term is aroma, and in wine-tasting terminology you’ll find the terms: ‘primary aroma’, ‘secondary aroma’ and ‘tertiary aroma’.

Primary aroma refers to smells coming from the grape itself – these can be quite dominant in a young wine made from an aromatic variety. For instance, a young Viognier could smell strongly of stone fruit.

In serious wine-tasting manuals such as the classic The Taste of Wine by Professor Emile Peynaud, secondary aroma is used in relation to the smell of fermentation.

Therefore, if no fruit or floral aromas are apparent in a young wine and what you get is more of a ‘winey’ smell, you could refer to that as secondary aroma.

To me, the term ‘secondary aroma’ should refer to all the smells of vinification, not just fermentation – in effect all the smells that are neither from the grape nor from ageing.

Tertiary aroma (or its synonym ‘bouquet’) is used when the aromas are due to ageing.

Wines capable of ageing will lose partly or almost all their primary aroma and after a few years will develop superb aromas of maturation.

Top Cabernet Sauvignon wines with some bottle age often smell of tobacco, wet leaves and other complex aromas.