What is Umami?

I seem to vaguely recall during my first or second sommelier courses that the prof mentioned the tongue’s ability to detect acidity, sweetness, bitterness, saltiness and… umami.

Regarding the latter, nobody as much as raised an eyebrow. Umami was either some laboratory created molecule or a flavor more relevant to Asian society and culture. The teacher did venture that umami was expressed in such foods as shitake mushrooms, algae, parmigiana cheese and bacon. That was it. During the next two years, scant references were made toward umami, it may as well have never been mentioned at all. It wasn’t until I saw an episode of Chef’s Table where Adam Sorkin spoke about umami in reference to the chicken broth he had made that I understood a little more. So let’s talk umami, what it is, where it’s found and how to pair it with wines.

Origines

Umami has become the scientific word used to describe the taste of glutamate.

Glutamate on the tongue allows receptors in the brain to detect the presence of proteins. This is an innate capacity, honed since birth, since breastmilk is full of umami. The use of glutamates can be traced to the Romans, who used a fermented fish sauce as a type of condiment to heighten certain dishes. It was a Japanese scientist in 1908 by the name of Kikunae Ikeda who introduced umami to the world. Ikeda was the first to identify umami as the flavor responsible for the richness of his bowl of soup. The addition of seaweed had provoked a salivating element on the tongue, rounding out the salty, sweet, acidic and bitter elements of the soup. Umami translated as “delicious richness”. Being a scientist not just a bon vivant, Ikeda isolated the glutamate sodium is a laboratory and SMG was born and has since been copiously used in Asian cuisine.

But umami is not just an Asian phenomenon. The rich and delicious taste of umami can be found in fermented foods as well as cured and brined meats. It rounds out a dish so that nothing else need to be added.

Umami in Wine and Grapes

Discerning umami in wine is also about understanding the conditions in which the grapes were grown. Let’s start with the simple fact of the taste. The taste of umami is related to nitrogen compounds, such as amino acids, found in the grapes. The quantity and the compositions of these nitrogen compounds are a product of the grapes’ maturity levels. These are affected by climatic conditions.

Usually, warmer regions harvest earlier than colder wine regions and the later one harvests, the higher the level of umami. Therefore, Chardonnay planted in Germany will have higher umami levels than Chardonnay planted in the South of Spain. Another important factor which determines the quality of amino acids in the wine is whether or not a malolactic fermentation has taken place.

This fermentation, whereby the tart malic acids in the grape juice are transformed into softer, more buttery lactic acids, can happen simultaneously or after the alcoholic fermentation. Finally, red tend to be richer in these glutamate acids than whites. The reason is linked to the skin contact with the juice which allows for a better extraction of amino acids. But then, orange wine also go through a period of skin maceration, therefore they too have high umami levels.

Accords with Umami

The same way cheese on a beef patty makes sense (umami once again), foods with umami must have the requisite wines to accompany them. A burger with ketchup and melted cheese is no longer a one-dimensional taste, but a rather rich and full on one. The negroamaro grape (literally translated as black bitter in Italian) from the Puglia region of Italy does the exact same job a cherry coke or root beer would. I encourage you to think in these terms about the wines.

I have found that pan-seared fish calls for a northern Pinot Noir, perhaps from the Saar in Germany, to give all the textures an almost creamy feel in the mouth. If the fish is brined, go for a white with acidity like an Aligoté (Jean Claude Rateau makes one of the best I’ve ever had) or a Chasselas from Ziereisen in Baden Germany. The acidity of the wine is transformed by the salt/sugar effect of the brine on the fish. We are no longer talking about a contrast but a melding or marriage of the flavors. If algae is involved, pour some Extra Brut Bubbles because the intensity of the algae required something with a crackle.  If it’s a broth with both seaweed and mushrooms (a dashi), the safe bet is Soave (Suavia make a fantastic one) but the best results I’ve had were with the Sicilian‘s grapes Catarratto and Caricante (depending on the terroir, they have a propensity for s salty and zesty acidity).

If we get away from whites and focus reds, let’s talk mushrooms. The acidity that is inherent in some red grapes like Nebbiolo are perfect for Maitakes. The mushrooms rounds out the acidity, allowing the earthy cigar box aromas to come through, with a touch of the dark cherry fruit. One important rule to keep in mind is to avoid overly tannic reds with umami dishes. These types of wine will create a misbalance and are not good vectors for the richness of the umami flavors.