Wine has three levels of flavors and aromas that evolve over the course of its life: primary, secondary and tertiary.
Younger wines display primary fruit flavors and aromas. These include black, red and dried fruit in red wines. For white wines, they can offer scents and flavors of green apples, plus citrus, tropical and stone fruits, and underripe fruits of all kinds. Primary aromas are the most obvious to detect in young wines, and they’re often what sparks interest in wine drinkers. Herbs and spices, like mint, pepper or licorice, are also part of the primary category.
Secondary aromas and flavors derive from winemaking processes like fermentation and aging. These can include the biscuit and yeasty notes that appear from lees stirring and autolysis (the effect when yeast dies off), or the very distinct buttery popcorn aroma that’s a byproduct of malolactic fermentation in many Chardonnays. It also encapsulates the wonderful characteristics that are imparted by oak aging, like vanilla, clove, smoke, coconut or even coffee.
The last of the three levels of aromas and flavors is tertiary. These complex components occur when wine is aged in an ideal environment.
In red wines, fresh ripe fruit starts to transform into stewed or dried fruit, like raisin or fig. Tertiary aromas of tobacco, earth and mushroom will come about, too.
White wines start to develop dried apricot, orange marmalade and sometimes even maderized qualities, or Sherry-like notes of almonds and candied fruit. Other tertiary characteristics include nutty aromas as well as complex spice components like nutmeg, ginger and petrol.
It’s important to note that wines with tertiary aromas and flavors are not “better” than those with primary and secondary ones. Around 90% of wines are meant to be consumed young and fresh, while a small percentage of wines improve with three to 10 years in the bottle. Only a tiny amount of wines (some estimate as low as 1%) are meant to age 10 years or more.
If you are drawn to wines with fresh fruit, powerful tannins and a mouthfilling finish, you might generally prefer primary and secondary flavors and aromas. Be honest about your palate and preferences, and be confident to drink whatever and whenever you like.