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

Ask Dr Vinny

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

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

White Wines Chardonnay Ask Dr. Vinny

More In Dr. Vinny

Is Shiraz a Burgundy or a Bordeaux wine?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains which wines are labeled as Shiraz vs. Syrah, and …

Sep 20, 2021

I found a bottle labeled "Solera 1845." Is it really 175 years old?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains how the solera wine aging system works, and what …

Sep 13, 2021

Is it OK to drink wine if the cork crumbles and pieces fall into the wine?

Got a crumbly wine cork? Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny has tips for how to deal.

Sep 7, 2021

Why do some winemakers use “used” oak barrels?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains why barrels are toasted, and how a wine barrel's …

Aug 30, 2021

What does it mean if a wine is “snappy”?

Wine Spectator's resident wine expert Dr. Vinny explains this term for lively, vibrant …

Aug 25, 2021

How can I tell if a wine cork is real or synthetic?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains how to identify a polyethylene cork vs. a …

Aug 16, 2021