One quality separates a refined palate from an amateur: the ability to detect secondary and tertiary flavors in wine. A big reason why most professionals are able to pick out these subtle notes is because they are more familiar with the winemaking process than a layman who only occasionally imbibes. Unlike the primary flavors that we’ve already discussed in this boot camp series, like fruits, flowers, and herbs, secondary and tertiary flavors don’t come from the young grapes themselves. They come from how the wine was fermented, or they develop over time as the primary flavors get weaker. In order to identify these notes, you need to take what you’ve learned from the previous two boot camps and gain insight into the minds of winemakers.
Secondary vs. Tertiary
The difference between secondary flavors in wine and tertiary flavors has to do with winemaking vs. natural age. Manmade techniques like fermentation, oak aging, and malolactic conversion impact the flavor of a wine to form secondary notes–these notes are harder to spot than the primary notes of fruit or herbs because they don’t occur naturally in the grape. If you know what common flavors to look for in certain types of wine, you can easily identify these secondary notes.
By contrast, tertiary flavors aren’t as simple as memorizing winemaking techniques. These are the flavors that naturally develop in the wine as it ages, and they become the focal point when primary notes like fruitiness mellow out over time. When you’re smelling these notes, you should refer to them as the wine’s “bouquet” rather than the “aroma” to signify that you’re talking about the aged quality of the wine.
Finding Secondary Aromas
The easiest way to train your palate to catch secondary aromas is to familiarize yourself with the two most common aroma-altering winemaking techniques, and to test your palate out on wines that were made using those techniques.
Generally, you’ll find two types of added yeast in wine: Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Brettanomyces. This added yeast can cause subtle scents, particularly in the following combinations:
- Brut Champagne and Yeast: Produces a light sourdough smell
- Chardonnay and Yeast: Produces a cheese rind or bread-like smell
- Rhone Blends and Yeast (Particularly Brett): Produces a barnyard or earthy smell
I recommend starting with Brut Champagne and Chardonnay because these yeasty smells are often more pleasant for drinkers than Brett, which has a much stronger presence. Have bread in mind as you take a series of short sniffs from your glass until you can isolate the scent.
Once you’ve successfully identified bread and cheese rind aromas in various bottles of Champagne or Chardonnay, move on to a red Rhone blend. You should instantly smell the yeast, which might seem unpleasant on first sniff. Let your palate acclimate to it, and see if you can find the earthy, soil notes underneath the gamey smell.
Sometimes, winemakers perform a secondary, or malolactic, fermentation in which they convert malic acid in the wine into lactic acid. When you smell these wines, try to detect scents that remind you of cultured dairy like yogurt or sour cream. Butter flavors result from lactic acid as well. I find secondary flavors and aromas of sour cream most often in dry reds, so I recommend seeking this flavor out in bottles of relatively dry Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. After you find the aroma in a red wine, switch to a bottle of Chardonnay that went through secondary fermentation. Picture buttered popcorn as you smell the wine. That popcorn smell comes from the yeast, while the butter scent comes from diacetyl, a byproduct of malolactic conversion.
Finding Secondary Flavors
Oak aging often causes the greatest change in a wine’s flavor and aroma. The longer a wine ages in oak, the more likely it will have strong vanilla, caramel, coconut, or smoke notes. The most common flavor and scent you’ll find from oak barrel aging is vanilla. Begin by tasting a bottle of American oak-aged wine like Silver Oak and a French oak-aged wine like Montrachet Chardonnay. Keep your thoughts on vanilla as you smell and taste both; you’ll find that the American oak has a stronger vanilla flavor than the French oak, yet both have vanilla present underneath the fruit.
After finding vanilla, imagine caramel, coconut, then smoke, in that order. Which flavors apply? Sweeter white wines will be closer to caramel in flavor, whereas bolder reds will usually have a smokier taste. Each of these flavors exists in the wine because of oak aging–you likely won’t find them in wines that didn’t spend time in these barrels.
Finding Tertiary Flavors
The ultimate test of your palate is to try a fully mature wine that’s been in a cellar for at least a decade. At this point, most of the primary flavors (like red and black fruits, or flowers) will become almost too subtle to taste, leaving you with an entirely new category of tertiary flavors to navigate. Begin by looking for the dried versions of the fruit flavors you found in the first boot camp. If a wine should be peach-heavy, look for dried peaches (which will taste nuttier and less fresh).
Once you find one or two dried fruits, coat your tongue in a large sip of wine, then take a series of quick little sips immediately afterward. Spreading the flavors across your whole tongue will help you identify earthier notes. Go through the following list:
Mark down any notes that apply to the wine you have. White wines will generally taste nutty, or like toasted s’mores, whereas red blends will usually take on a leather-like flavor. After successfully finding at least one of these flavors, you can get creative with your future tasting notes. Now that your nose and tongue know what to look for, refine your notes down to specific descriptions, like peach cobbler, Cuban cigar, or espresso. The more specific you are, the more memorable your notes will be.
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