What are “Buttery” White Wines?
Some white wines taste “buttery” due to a wine-making process called “Malo,” or “Malolactic Conversion” that makes the wine less acidic and more creamy. Wines that go through Malo don’t actually have butter in them, but the end result can sometimes taste like yogurt, toast, or even movie theater buttered popcorn! How can this be? It’s all science.
Which Grapes Go Through “Malo?”
Some white grapes are heavily aromatic (fruity & floral), like Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Torrontes. For these wines, the natural fruity aromas are so intense that you can often smell them as soon as you open the bottle or pour them into the glass. You’ll taste bright flavors of lemon, lime, apple, pear, peach, pineapple, flowers, or any other primary fruit/floral characteristic that grape naturally has.
However, most other white grapes fall into the non-aromatic grape category like Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Chenin Blanc. These grapes are more neutral with less fruit/floral intensity, and may need a bit more help to develop complex flavors. If you were to pour a glass of non-aromatic white wine, you may have to sniff a lot harder in order to smell the aromas. Neutral grapes allow wine-makers to be creative and employ different wine-making techniques for additional flavor and complexity. One technique is for them to undergo a process called “Malo” (Malolactic Conversion), which results in the presence of dairy and toasty flavors.
As a side note, almost all red grapes go through Malo to smooth out the astringency and tannin from the seeds, stems and skin. But the presence of other red and black fruit aromas masks the “butter” flavor we taste in white wines.
The Malolactic Conversion Process
After these white wines complete fermentation, they undergo an additional process that can create the dairy and/or buttery taste. The wine-maker slightly raises the temperature of the wine, and Lactic Acid Bacteria are added. These bacteria convert the wine’s harsh malic acid (lemony) into soft lactic acid (milky). After the desired level of Malo is reached, the wine-maker lowers the temperature of the wine back down, and the wine is now a rounder and creamier version of its original state.
White wine that has undergone Malo picks up dairy and bready secondary flavors. The new flavors can be a combination of butter, cream, cheese, bread, pastry, toast, yeast, and other autolytic (dough-like) characteristics. Sometimes the process produces a compound called Diacetyl, which creates the movie theater butter and yogurt flavors present in some Chardonnays and other non-aromatic white wines.
Many California Chardonnays heavily underwent Malo in the 80s and 90s, gaining a reputation for being extremely “buttery.” This taste was revered and enjoyed by many loyal followers for years. However, consumers are now starting to lean more towards preferring the primary fruity/floral aromas of a grape and less buttery flavors. As a result, some wine-makers are responding to consumer preferences by lessening the effect of the Malo process, or by completely avoiding it in order to focus on a more acidic, fresher taste.
Buttery wines pair well with buttery dishes like rich pastas, chicken in cream sauce and pesto-based entrees. They also pair well with an array of seafood including white fish and shell fish. They are also enjoyed alongside bright vegetables and soft Brie cheeses.
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