Describing wine - Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Notes

I will preface this with my observation that many tasting notes appear to conflate the terms secondary and tertiary. Perhaps I misunderstand what the terms mean or perhaps there is some nuance I don’t get.
As a reminder, my understanding of the definition is that: Primary is in the vineyard, Secondary is in the winery, and Tertiary is in the bottle.

So most notes will identify Primary notes as relating to the fruit or perhaps maybe the effect of rain or mildew or ripeness of the tannin, etc. I seldom see any confusion here. Secondary notes may be something related to oak or the yeast (champagne sits on the lees and gives it bread like notes for example). Or the effect of malolactic fermentation which clearly changes the taste of the wine. And of course Tertiary notes are from bottle aging - often decades - the tannins soften, the fruit fades - and especially for red wines notes of tobacco, cedar, earthy mushrooms, forest floor, etc.

So I guess my question is when I see notes that describe “secondary notes” of cedar and tobacco - or “secondary and tertiary notes” of mushroom and forest floor should I - 1) Ignore the nomenclature and just assume that the author doesn’t understand it and realize they are really just talking about tertiary notes. 2) Correct them (probably not going to do that) 3) Consider that some of these notes may indeed be from secondary characteristics that change in the bottle 4) None of the above.

Besides trying to clarify my understanding of how the nomenclature should be used, the real question is how do secondary characteristics change in the bottle - we all know the fruit fades (typically wines become less primary as they age) but what about the effect of oak or yeast. Do secondary characteristics also typically fade or can they actually become more prominent with time.

Any thoughts appreciated.



I have the same understanding, this is the WSET approach that I learned in class. What I don’t know is if different institutions are using a different classification than WSET.

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That is what I consider them to mean as well but it is not once or twice that I’ve seen a TN on a bottled wine with something along the lines of: ”not many secondary notes yet…”.


I think a lot of folks likely assign aromas and flavors to the categories based on intensity. Oak could be a primary if it’s heavy handed while it could be secondary if used more deftly. Tertiary I often find associated with degradation/age whether forest floor, basement, etc. This may be fundamentally incorrect based on the wine accreditation industrial complex, but I think that’s how a vast majority view the terms.


This ambiguity is one of the reasons I don’t like using these terms. People use them to describe aromas that develop at different points in the wine’s life as well as the relative intensity of the aromas.

I don’t think it’s especially useful to use these terms anyway, except in a wine education context to explain how and when different aromas are produced or expressed in a wine.


These terms are correct when answering a WSET test.

However, for example I use in my tasting notes the terms “primary” and “tertiary” as flavor descriptors relating to in which phase the wine is aromatically: “primary” when it is “too” young, ie. dominated by fermentation aromas and flavors, “tertiary” when the wine has started to develop some obvious aromas and flavors relating to age. However, I never use “secondary” - just don’t see the term particularly useful in the way I write notes.

When it comes to the way WSET uses the terms is accurate from the point of how and when aromas are produced in wine, as Ben just said it. However, from tasting note point of view, they make much less sense. For example virtually all flavors one can taste are secondary flavors. Most of the fruit flavors people think of as “primary flavors” are actually compounds formed during fermentation from flavor precursors in the grape juice. This is why grape juice doesn’t really smell anything like wine. From a technical point of view the only primary aromas in a wine are those fragrant floral notes one can smell and taste in varieties like Muscat or Gewurztraminer, as they are already present in a grape; methoxypyrazines one can smell and taste in eg. Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and unripe grapes; botrytis and other molds. There are some fruit aromas that are already present in a grape and carry on to the wine, but unless you exactly know which compound you are talking about, it’s always to safe to err on the side of fermentation flavors.

Thus, the division of the terms “primary flavors” and “secondary flavors” (as described by WSET) is IMO pretty useless in a tasting note. I think it gives you a better idea if you write “primary fruit flavors” suggesting the wine is super youthful, basically right out of the gate and “tertiary fruit flavors” suggesting the wine has reached some degree of maturity. Secondary flavors is something I associate with mainly oak aging and MLF, but basically it also includes most fruit flavors and most faults and flaws like brett, acetic acid, ethyl acetate, isoamyl acetate, etc.

I’ve never seen tasting notes written like this. Or if I have, I must’ve read them completely wrong. It sounds very incorrect to my ears. For example “primary oak flavors” doesn’t just seem right.


Very thoughtful reply Otto - especially the point where fruit flavors can be significantly affected by what goes on in the winery.


Yes - this is what drives me a bit crazy! I just think consistent nomenclature makes sure we are all speaking the same language!

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@Otto_Forsberg I think syntax matters, it changes the meaning when you phrase it as; “I smell and taste primarily oak”. I am also talking about how people speak about wine in less formal settings. Folks on this forum do not speak about wine the way the vast majority of people do.

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Syntax does matter. “Primary” is adjective, we were talking about adjectives. “Primarily” is adverb, that’s a completely different thing and does not relate to this. For example you wouldn’t say “I smell tertiarily pineapple”.


@Otto_Forsberg Primarily means for the most part or mainly, and primary is first in rank, basic, or fundamental. I think you’re making a distinction without a difference unless we’re having a semantic-off that I wasn’t aware of.

I know what the terms mean.

The thing is, we were talking about primary, secondary and tertiary flavors. Then you suddenly you change the subject about adverbs, ie. talking about what people smell or taste primarily. A different thing entirely that doesn’t pertain to the topic. “Primarily” is about semantics, primary flavors are about wine chemistry.


Like others I agree with your understanding of what primary, secondary and tertiary relate to.

However I’m someone who tries to avoid non-obvious terms such as these, or vaguer / easily misconstrued terms (e.g. minerality) when writing tasting notes. I want our hobby to move away from the arcane / mysterious, and be clearer / more plain-talking. If ever using these or other non-obvious terms, I try to include enough background so that people can still understand without being uber-geeks.

My reasoning is that them being non-obvious, causes the very mis-use / differing use that you’ve described.


Well, given that I generally don’t know where the notes are coming from, I’ll just start using the descriptor “anonymous,” e.g., “showing some anonymous smoke” and “anonymous black tea” notes, etc. :stuck_out_tongue:

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I understand what the three terms technically mean. I just don’t care that much.


I agree 99%. Minerality is a weird one, though … I’ve never been satisfied with a definition I’ve seen of “minerality,” but paradoxically, I also feel like I know exactly what’s meant by it and confess to using the term myself at times.

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You mean you don’t regularly suck on pebbles?

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I have never seen or even heard of anyone using these terms this way.

I had always assumed it was ranking based upon the emphasis of the characteristic being pulled from the wine. Having not (yet?) to take any WSET courses the concept of its labeling according to source (vineyard/winery/bottle) is new to me.
If someone could clarify, why describe “bottle” as an influence rather than age? Unless we are talking about closure type, it seems odd to ascribe that the bottle has influence on the wine.

This is more or less my exact usage, although I suppose I do use secondary to refer to aromas that are non-fermentation derived but not necessarily from oxidation/aging. So more the character of the fruit for instance (cooked or jammy), vessel impact, etc.

Not claiming that is the right way, or even logical, it’s just how I work through it.

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