Help me understand primary, secondary, tertiary characteristics

I see this terminology a lot. I have only a very basic idea of what is being talked about. I am looking to go beyond this basic understanding to being able to recognize the characteristic(s) as they present themselves in a wine. I have a perhaps naive idea that a tasting of a few wines could be structured to illustrate the concept. Not sure how to proceed. Any suggestions/advice would be welcome.

Primary - all the characteristics coming from the vineyard and grape (fruit, floral, herbaceous)
Secondary - all the characteristics coming from the wine making process (oak, malo, lees contact, etc)
Tertiary - all the characteristics coming from maturation. (graphite, mushroom, forest floor)

Hank, so your are saying ALL wines have both primary and secondary characteristics? Can’t some of those examples you cite of so-called tertiary characteristics sometimes be present in a wine almost from the beginning without much maturation?

Some avoid the Secondary. The Clos Saron guy Gideon Beinstock says his aim is to completely avoid secondary stage and not impart any “winemaking”.

I don’t think there is any very specific answer.

I think of it as though the primary flavors are the ones most prominent in a wine’s youth - mostly the fruit and oak.

The secondary flavors are what we think of as the complexity from when wines get into their maturity, things like leather, spice, graphite, mineral, herbs, pine forest, orange peel, tobacco, etc. Those may well be noticeable in a good quality young wine too, or some portion of them, but they achieve more prominence and more balance with the fruit and overall experience as the wine gets into its peak window.

Tertiary flavors are the additional flavors that become more prominent when a very good and ageworthy wine reaches the later part of its maturity, things maybe like mushroom, tea, autumn leaves, dried flowers. Older type flavors yet which are still interesting and pleasant. This is probably not a level you encounter very often, unless you’re Francois Audouze or something.

That’s totally just how I think of it, and it may or may not be right or what other people mean by those terms.

My understanding is similar to Hanks, though I’m not sure floral/herbaceous notes are from the vineyard. I’d think of those as secondary, as I believe they wouldn’t show up until after fermentation. To that end I’d expand secondary to include byproducts of fermentation.

A cheap sauv blanc from nz that just sees stainless steel and bottled early to preserve its fresh and fruity notes would be 100% primary. For your second point yes there is some overlap when it comes to typicity.

I’m more in-line with Hanks definition than Chris’s.

But this shouldn’t be a matter of opinion. Happily there are formal definitions.

Exactly. Included in secondary (and often a large part of it) there are lots of aromas that can come from the fermentation itself that weren’t apparent in the grapes. Lots of people have different definitions, but these are the most commonly accepted ones. To me, they also make the most sense.

In wine talk, primary is pretty much a negative term, almost the opposite of complex. Simple, un-evolved. And we like our wine evolved and complex.

Thanks. This is somewhat helpful. Maybe as Chris suggests there is no real answer and these are terms that, despite the “formal definitions”, are not understood the same way by everybody who uses the terms?
Let me ask the question differently. In an Oregon Pinot Noir and a French Chablis, what would be some tastes /aromas that YOU consider primary, secondary or tertiary? Could I take two vintages of the same wine (one young one mature) and get a sense of what primary/secondary tastes like in comparison to tertiary? Can YOU suggest two available vintages of a specific wine that would illustrate this. Do I overcomplicate? oversimplify? Thanks.

Hold on - what about slate in Riesling? It comes from the soil in Mosel, which is the vineyard category, so is that primary? Or is it secondary?

Hmm…to me, more ‘development’ is seen in secondary than just oak, malo, lees, etc - to me, secondary is when the oak starts to integrate (for example) but the fruit is still bright.

I’ve never once read an article about that subject, and I’m not arguing my view versus anyone else’s.

I’m not sure why “this shouldn’t be a matter of opinion,” or why an article from Vinepair is dispositive. But if that definition is well established, I’ll certainly concede the point.

I think my (apparently wrong) view derived from how people use those terms in discussion. For example:

  • “I just tried the 2016 Bordeaux, and it’s totally primary right now.” 2016 Bordeaux would have plenty of oak and winemaker effects present.

  • “The 2000 Bordeaux is now showing secondary characteristics, but not yet tertiary ones.” I wouldn’t read that to mean you’re finally now tasting oak-imparted flavors - I would think you’re getting more tobacco, bell pepper, leather, earth, etc. than you got when it was just released.

That’s how those things have sounded to my ears, and it seems like a more useful way to think of it. But if those terms are set in stone, maybe I should find a different way to say those things.

I apply those terms in the same way Chris just described.

Primary - young fresh fruit
Secondary - integration has happened (tannins. Oak. Fruit)
Tiertiary - full integration. Old funky sh!t happening.

This is the official terminology I’ve seen taught in many places, including the places I’ve studied wine.

Herbaceous notes are often (but not always) from the vineyard, since they usually come from pyrazines, which are grape compounds that survive the fermentation process pretty much unchanged. For example methoxypyrazines found in, for example, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère grapes, impart that herbaceous bell pepper character. However, new American oak can impart a herbaceous note of dill or mint, which then is a secondary characteristic.

Floral aromas are usually primary (tones of different compounds here) and for example a classic Moscato wine is supposed to be nothing but primary fruit, without ANY tertiary characteristics and all the secondary characteristics downplayed as much as possible (using neutral yeasts, minimizing lees contact, no oak etc.) . It really tastes like unfermented grape must (which is pretty much as primary as possible). However, many red wines develop perfumed floral characteristics only with age and these are tertiary characteristics.

However, when writing tasting notes, terms “primary”, “secondary” and “tertiary” can be used more liberally, which can add to confusion - although I’ve seen very few people use “secondary” constantly. Normally one sees just “primary” to describe wine that feels still very grapey and all about explosive, youthful fruit (although, in reality, many of those aromas are technically secondary, since they are fermentation byproducts, like fruity esters) and “tertiary” to describe wine that has lost most or all of its primary fruit, retaining mainly secondary and tertiary aromatics.

AFAIC I agree with this definition.
I think the main difference is not what the characteristics smell/taste like, but where they come from.

Primary: from the grapes and vineyard
Secondary: from the winemaking/elevation
Tertiary: from bottle age

That would be a second/third stage of developement rather than a secondary/tertiary characteristic.

Hank, so your are saying ALL wines have both primary and secondary characteristics? Can’t some of those examples you cite of so-called tertiary characteristics sometimes be present in a wine almost from the beginning without much maturation?


There are some aromas and flavors that ONLY occur with aging. Not with aeration, not with fresh fruit. And not all wines express all three categories. Tertiary characteristics come at the expense of the primary characteristics. But most wines don’t really age. They just turn into crap.

There’s no legal definition, but according to Peynaud, secondary characteristics come from fermentation, which requires yeast and development of new compounds that are not present in the berries themselves, in other words, not from the berries directly. And tertiary aromas come from age, so you’ll never have htose aromas with fresh grape juice.

But that’s just a handy distinction, not a legal or scientific one. And there’s no need to write about them in tasting notes, or worry about what they may mean if you read tasting notes, which are more or less useless anyway.

There is no such thing as secondary development AFAIC. Developed flavours/aromas are all tertiary.

Thanks Otto. Makes sense.