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Primary vs tertiary wine aromas: what’s the difference?

How can smells of truffle, leather and raspberry fruit live in harmony in your wine glass? Here is a brief explanation of the key differences between primary, secondary and tertiary wine aromas.

Wine aromas at-a-glance:

  • Primary aromas, such as fruit and floral smells, come from the grape variety itself.
  • Secondary aromas are broadly derived from the winemaking process.
  • Tertiary aromas develop as wine ages.

From lemon zest to colouring crayons, wine aromas come in all shapes and sizes – some more personal in nature and others accepted as broadly conventional descriptions for a particular style.

A Rockefeller University study in 2014 estimated that humans can detect more than one trillion smells.

Whether or not we could hope to describe that many scents is another matter, but it is just one study of many that emphasises the importance of using your nose when it comes to wine tasting.

The science around the development of wine aromas, and their relationship, is an ongoing area of study. But, it’s common for professional wine tasters to split key aromas into three broad categories.

Primary wine aromas

This is all about the initial smells and aromas considered to emerge from the grape variety itself, whether it’s the grapefruit in your rosé, the mix of menthol and rich cassis in some young Cabernet Sauvignon wines or that lychee note in your glass of Gewürztraminer.

Floral and some spice aromas, from rose and violet to ginger, can also come into play here, and you’ll find more specific examples on our Tasting Notes Decoded page.

Some wines, such as Shiraz / Syrah can exhibit black pepper, although this may be easier to spot on the palate. ‘Peppery notes in wine tend to come from particular grape varieties rather than as a product of the winemaking process,’ said Decanter’s Rhône expert, Matt Walls, in this article explaining the difference between black and white pepper.

Climate and winemaking decisions, from harvest dates to handling in the cellar, can affect the intensity and complexion of the aromas, of course.

Riper styles of Chardonnay in warmer climates might naturally lean towards the tropical end of the fruit spectrum, while a Chablis on the northern fringe of Burgundy is more generally associated with apple and stone fruit – as this example from William Fèvre shows.

If a winemaker has purposefully sought to emphasise the fruit, such as by fermenting in stainless steel or perhaps concrete tanks with little or no oak contact, then you can expect more primary aromas to dominate.

Secondary aromas

These are the key aromas that are understood as being derived from the winemaking cellar, although it is somewhat open to interpretation.

As the late, great Gerard Basset OBE MW MS replied in a response to a Decanter reader question in 2016, ‘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.’

Examples include vanilla spice or toasty notes from oak, especially new, American barrels, or the buttery, creamy texture that can be a tell-tale sign of malolactic fermentation; a process that softens acidity in a wine by converting malic acid into lactic acid.

Lees contact – which could perhaps be considered part of the ageing process by some – is mainly responsible for those bread-like, brioche notes, which can be found in some Champagnes.

Tertiary aromas

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

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

Have you ever put your nose to the floor of a forest? If so, you might find aromas resonant of that experience in some bottle-aged red wines.

Other common tertiary notes for red wines include leather, truffle, cigar box, tobacco, cedar and mushroom, to name only a few.

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

Decanter Italy specialist Michaela Morris wrote recently of Gaja’s Sperss Barolo from 1996, ‘The nose is extraordinary – immediately appealing with dried bay leaf, black tea, leather and tar.’

In white wines, nutty, mushroom or honey notes can develop, while petrol or kerosene is often associated with aged Riesling wines – albeit, not everyone enjoys this aspect.

This is merely an introductory overview, and it’s worth remembering that winemakers and vineyard managers must make decisions at every step of the process that will affect the profile of the wine aromas in your glass.

An array of other factors, such as acidity, the character of the tannins, alcohol and the body of the wine, can all affect the final taste, too, of course.

This article was originally published as an ‘ask Decanter’ article in 2016 but has been updated and extended in June 2020.

Read in-depth about specific wine aromas: 

Tasting Notes Decoded: How to understand wine flavour

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