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Ask Dr. Vinny

Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, or "Vinny" for short. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the technical aspects of winemaking to the fine points of etiquette. I hope you find my answers educational and even amusing. Looking for a particular answer? Check my archive and my FAQs. You can also follow me on Twitter: @AskDrVinny.

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

What does the term “buttery” mean in reference to wine?

—John A., St. Louis

Dear John,

This is a question I get a lot. "Buttery" can refer to a flavor, smell, texture or some combination of all three, and it's most commonly associated with Chardonnay. Buttery flavors usually come from diacetyl, an organic compound that’s a natural byproduct of fermentation. Diacetyl can also be a result of putting a wine through a malolactic conversion. Exposing a wine to oak barrels can also emphasize buttery notes—both from the toasting on the inside of the barrel, and the softening effect barrels can have on a wine’s texture.

Have you ever smelled a wine and it’s a dead ringer for butter-flavored popcorn? That’s not a coincidence. Diacetyl is sometimes added to foods for its buttery flavor—think movie-theater popcorn, margarine, crackers and cooking oil.

I consider “buttery” a positive note. Just like any other wine characteristic, I prefer it in balance with a wine’s other elements. But buttery Chardonnays used to be very fashionable, and now much less so. These days, sometimes “buttery” is used as a pejorative term.

Other descriptors in a similar vein are cream/creamy, piecrust, caramel, butterscotch or brioche.

—Dr. Vinny

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