What are Tertiary Aromas in Wine?
Aged wine provides thrilling complexity
The best young wines stink of the primary aromas of fresh fruit, herbs, and spices - red cherries in Pinot Noir, sage and chili pepper in Cabernet Franc, jalapeno in Sauvignon Blanc, and white nectarine and unripe peach in Albariño.
The process of fermentation and barrel aging adds secondary aromas of biscuity and buttery notes to Chardonnay, bittersweet chocolate, cigar box, and espresso notes to full-bodied red wines. Secondary aromas and flavors are products of intentional winemaking. The winemaker chooses to age and ferment wine in oak - in varying percentages of new barrel - to create additional layers of organoleptic and structural complexity. The best winemakers are especially careful to make sure that all the tools available to goose secondary complexity are used for good and not evil. It is very easy to lay on too much new oak at the expense of the beautiful fruit that contributed its primary essence to the wine.
Tertiary aromas can come only with time. The passage of years and the ever-changing molecular dance of dissolved oxygen in the wine bottle mature fresh fruit to dried figs and raisins, and the cedar of freshly toasted barrels into the dying leaves of the coming winter. The tertiary set of sensual experiences is, like the second, dependent upon human intentionality. Here, though, it is the wine drinker, and not the winemaker, who is the central figure in understanding, taking in, and deciding. The winemaker’s mission had been fulfilled years (sometimes, decades) before. It is up to the one doing the experiencing to define the success of the vinous offering.
I cannot separate the sensuous quality of aged wines from the effect Time, itself, has on wine and the wine drinker. I described it like this in my book, Lineage: Life and Love and Six Generations in California Wine:
“That humble bottle carried its age with grace, and it sung sweetly of years of plenty and years bereaved, hauled along those aromas of vanilla sugar and whiskey barrel, of stropped leather and raisin, and filled the mouth with a sweetness and a viscosity that I can feel now coating my tongue even 25 years later. I do not know who made the wine or if that company is still transmuting fruit into such powerful memories; but that wine was the first hand grenade to blow apart my misconceptions.”
Great and age-worthy wine + Time is a powerful combination of hedonistic and intellectual delights. Gone are the exhortations of youth, but in their place is a wine that has - Prometheus-like - weathered the constant undoing that is Time’s prerogative. The years that intervene between the acquisition of the wine and the drinking of it are what give it the gravity and magic that it finally displays. The wine you finally drink could not have been that life-changing elixir without the days spooling out and shaping it. The wine would have been more powerful, more fruit-forward and tannic when they were young, but it could never have mirrored the life you lived like the years it carried along with it.
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