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Butter in Your Wine?
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed April 12, 2002. For more information go to

Have you ever poured a glass of wine and discerned an obvious scent of butter, almost as if someone had just slathered a ration of pure creamery butter on a slice of hot toast?

Most often found in Chardonnay but occasionally appearing in other wines, the buttery scent comes from diacetyl, a chemical that produces the characteristic aroma of real butter and that is used as an additive to add a butter scent to margarine.

Diacetyl turns up in wine when the wine maker puts a naturally low-acid wine through a process called malolactic fermentation. This process, triggered in the winery by adding a special bacteria to the wine and called "malo" for short, was developed as a way to make high-acid wines more palatable, as it converts the wine's naturally occurring malic acid - which is tart, even twangy, and imparts a green-apple flavor - into lactic acid, which is softer and more mellow.

Malolactic fermentation is commonplace in red wines but less customary in whites ... except for Chardonnay, where it was developed in Burgundy as a way to bring a smooth roundness to the finished wine.

But White Burgundies, grown in a cool climate, are typically high-acid wines. When a white wine of relatively low acidity - like most California and Australian Chardonnay - is put through "malo," you get the familiar butter flavor. Because this flavor is popular, many wine makers put Chardonnay through "malo" specifically to achieve it. (They may turn up the volume even more by holding the wine in oak barrels, which adds spicy, sweet and vanilla aromas and flavors.)

So, the presence or absence of "butter" divides the world of Chardonnay into two broad categories that are roughly associated with the wine's geographical origin.

* The "Old World" style, characteristic of White Burgundies, produces a wine that's usually high in acidity and bone-dry, focused on fruit, with little or no oak flavor.

* The "New World" style almost seems like a completely different wine. Ripe in flavor and often slightly sweet, it's a big Chardonnay with vanilla and tropical-fruit character and a marked buttery aroma and texture.

As with just about every generalization in the world of wine, there are many exceptions to this one. You'll find a taste of butter in some European Chardonnays, and more than a few Australian and California Chardonnays are made in a style that's, well, Burgundian. But when you pull the cork and the wine shouts "Butter! Butter!" you can pretty much be assured that you've opened a New World-style Chardonnay.

Some people love this butter flavor. Some find it offputting. What's your opinion? Just for fun, we've set up this week's Wine Lovers' Voting Booth topic to find out. You're invited to drop by the Voting Booth, to cast your ballot.


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