What makes butter Chardonnay?

Answered by Arthur Reyes

Butter Chardonnay, also known as “oaked” or “buttery” Chardonnay, is a style of that has gained popularity over the years. The buttery flavors in Chardonnay come from a specific winemaking technique called malolactic fermentation.

Malolactic fermentation is a secondary fermentation process that occurs after the primary alcoholic fermentation. During this process, bacteria convert malic acid, which is naturally present in grapes, into lactic acid. This conversion results in a decrease in the wine's acidity and a change in its flavor profile.

The primary reason for conducting malolactic fermentation is to soften the wine's acidity and create a smoother mouthfeel. This is particularly important for high-acid grapes like Chardonnay, which can sometimes have a sharp or tart taste. By converting the malic acid to lactic acid, the wine becomes less acidic and more balanced.

In the case of butter Chardonnay, the lactic acid produced during malolactic fermentation contributes to the creamy, buttery flavors that are characteristic of this style. Lactic acid has a distinct buttery taste, which is why wines that undergo malolactic fermentation often exhibit this flavor profile.

However, it is important to note that not all Chardonnays undergo malolactic fermentation. Winemakers have the option to choose whether or not to induce this secondary fermentation. Some Chardonnays are intentionally made without malolactic fermentation to preserve the wine's natural acidity and fruit flavors. These wines are often referred to as “unoaked” or “crisp” Chardonnays.

The decision to conduct malolactic fermentation or not depends on the winemaker's desired style and the characteristics of the grapes. Factors such as climate, vineyard location, and grape ripeness can influence this decision. For example, grapes grown in cooler climates tend to have higher acidity levels and may benefit from malolactic fermentation to soften the wine, while grapes from warmer regions might not require this process.

In my experience as a sommelier, I have come across various butter Chardonnays that showcase different levels of buttery flavors. Some wines have a subtle hint of butter, while others have a more pronounced and rich buttery character. This can be influenced by several factors, including the duration of malolactic fermentation, the type of bacteria used, and the aging process.

To summarize, the buttery flavors in Chardonnay are a result of malolactic fermentation, where malic acid is converted to lactic acid. This secondary fermentation process softens the wine's acidity and creates a creamy, buttery taste. However, it is important to note that not all Chardonnays undergo malolactic fermentation, and the decision to conduct this process depends on the winemaker's desired style and grape characteristics.