Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, but you can call me Vinny. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the fine points of etiquette to the science of winemaking. And don't worry, I'm no wine snob—you can also ask me those "dumb questions" you're too embarrased to ask your wine geek friends! I hope you find my answers educational, empowering and even amusing. And don't forget to check out my most asked questions and my full archives for all my Q&A classics.
Dear Dr. Vinny,
What does the term “buttery” mean in reference to wine?
—John A., St. Louis
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.