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Buttery Wines Explained: What It Means & How It Tastes

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How does a flavor such as butter get into your wine? If you don’t happen to be a wine expert or a chemist, it’s not a bad question. 

Buttery can refer to a flavor, smell, texture, or some combination of all three and it is most commonly associated with Chardonnay. Buttery flavors usually come from diacetyl, an organic compound that is a natural byproduct of fermentation. 

Buttery wine tastes like vanilla, butter, and coconut. The texture (or how it feels in your mouth is described as oily, creamy, smooth, or waxy. 

There are actually other factors that make wines taste buttery so please read below!  For example, exposing a wine to oak barrels will emphasize buttery notes – from the toasting on the inside of the barrel and from the softening effects barrels can have on a wine’s texture. Also, read below to find some great examples of wines to try in order to give you an idea what buttery wines are like.

What does it mean when wine is buttery?
What does it mean when wine is buttery?

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What does it mean when wine (Chardonnay) is buttery?

When a wine like Chardonnay is described as buttery, it means the wine has been aged in oak and is rich with little acidity. When a wine is buttery it has a cream-like texture. It has a smooth finish and hits the middle of your tongue as oil (aka butter). 

These Chardonnays are rich, full-bodied, and have additional flavors of vanilla, butter, and even caramel from the oak.

The perfect food pairings for buttery wines are soft cheeses, fish with herbs, pork loin, oily flaky fish, white mushrooms, and truffles. In particular, cow’s milk cheese such as Humboldt Fog, Herb Crusted Halibut with Minted Sweet Pea Puree, thyme, lemon zest, tarragon, and asparagus. 

What makes wine buttery?

The buttery characteristic in wine is due to the malolactic fermentation, the secondary fermentation process of converting malic acid (which has a tart, green-apple flavor) to lactic acid. Lactic acid has a creamy, buttery flavor and is one of six acids that occur in the winemaking process. 

The malolactic process reduces acidity in wine and also releases carbon dioxide. Malolactic fermentation isn’t really fermentation because it doesn’t use yeast.

Instead, a special kind of bacteria eats the malic acid in wine and lactic acid is the result. This brings a creamy, velvety, almost oil-like texture to the wine. 

What type of wine is buttery?

Nearly all red wines and some whites such as Chardonnay and Viognier are buttery but to different degrees. Chardonnay is most commonly associated with the term buttery because of the buttery notes that result from the process mentioned above. In addition to buttery, Chardonnay’s can be referred to as butterscotch. 

A sure way to tell if a white wine will not taste buttery is if it is referred to as un-oaked. Then it is going to be the opposite of buttery. Regions with cooler climates will make wines that fall into this category.

Some of these regions include, Sonoma Coast, California, Western Australia, Loire and Chablis France, Casablanca Valley Chile, and Oregon. 

The reason oak-aged wines are described as buttery is because aging wine in oak barrels can impart soft, creamy qualities to a wine’s mouthfeel, similar to that of butter, but is often more synonymous with baking spice, nutmeg, and clove. 

The use of new barrels for wine and longer time in the barrel results in stronger oak flavors in the wine.

Toasting the oak barrels converts the flavors of the barrel from wood to spice and vanilla notes and softens the tannins. (Tannins are what makes your mouth pucker when you drink wine and primarily come from the grapes skins, seeds, and stems.)

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What is a buttery Chardonnay?

What is a buttery Chardonnay?
What is a buttery Chardonnay?

A buttery Chardonnay is one that is fermented in oak, aged in oak, receives malolactic fermentation, and is lees (dead yeast cells left after primary fermentation) stirred for several weeks for extra creaminess. Winemakers can use a variety of choices of the aforementioned process. 

Buttery Chardonnay’s used to be very fashionable, but now they are less so. Sometimes “buttery” is used as a negative term when referring to Chardonnay. It is important to note that no matter what is in-vogue or popular at any given time, you  always drink what you like! 

Do not be intimidated by wine geeks or wine snobs telling you what you should and shouldn’t like in wine. Very often people who like buttery Chardonnay also like peppery Zinfandel and creamy Cabernet Sauvignon even though that may not be in fashion or trendy at the moment. 

Chardonnay is the most popular white wine in America. It is made in many different places by different methods and comes with a wide variety of flavors and price ranges. 

To be labeled as Chardonnay, a wine must be primarily from Chardonnay grapes. In California, a Chardonnay must be made from at least 75 percent of the variety’s grapes. In the Burgundy area of France, (the birth place of Chardonnay) 100 percent Chardonnay is typical. 

In order to know if you prefer a buttery Chardonnay, you will want to decide if you like the idea of a creamy, rich, white wine in your glass. If so, you’ll love the classic style of oak-aged Chardonnay. 

On the other hand, if you like your white wines to be lean, minerally, and dry, then your perfect Chardonnay will be the un-oaked kind. This refers to a Chardonnay with no butter, no vanilla, and no creaminess. 

You may be wondering how a single grape (Chardonnay) can offer so many different flavor profiles. The answer is in the winemaking process and the climate where the grapes grow.

For example, a cool-climate Chardonnay will have more tropical fruit flavors than a warm climate Chardonnay. Also grapes that are picked when they are very ripe will have a sweeter, more buttery component to them. 

Regions that make more buttery Chardonnays due to oak aging are Southern and Eastern Australia, Napa Valley, Paso Robles, and Lake County California, Mendoza Argentina, Burgundy, France (Puligny-Montrachet, and Meursault), and Puglia, Italy. 

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What is a buttery red wine?

Cabernet Sauvignon can be characterized as a buttery red wine, although the term is not often used in reds. Cabernet Sauvignon is flavorful, bold and smooth – with the term smooth often being compared to the term buttery in this particular red wine. 

Almost all red wines go through malolactic fermentation. Diacetyl is a by-product of this conversion therefore it is present in red wine. 

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Conclusion

If you’ve ever smelled a wine and it reminds you of butter-flavored popcorn, that’s not a coincidence. As mentioned above, Diacetyl is sometimes added to food for its buttery flavor – like crackers, cooking oil, and margarine. Many consider “buttery” a positive term in wine as long as it is balanced with a wine’s other components. 

A wine review might describe a buttery wine as toasted oak or “grilled baguette”. An inexpensive buttery wine from California and some other regions may have been flavored with toasted oak chips instead of placed into real oak barrels. If used carelessly, the butter flavor will unfavorably overwhelm the other characteristics in the wine. 

Here are a few buttery wines to try. They will help you get an idea of what buttery wines are like. They include Mer Soleil Chardonnay, Bread and Butter Chardonnay, J. Lohr Chardonnay, Kendall Jackson Chardonnay, and Cakebread Chardonnay.

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