Maybe you’ve heard of umami, the elusive concept that’s been popping up in the food world the last couple of years. Umami is the mysterious taste that gives your favorite dishes that rich, deep flavor you can’t quite put your finger on. But what about wine? As someone who often analyzes both what’s on my plate and in my glass, I’ve been searching for food and wine pairings that bring out that unmistakeable but hard to pin down quality. My own palate is tuned toward savory, meaty tastes, but sensitivity to umami certainly varies from person to person.
Umami, pronounced oo-MOM-eee, is considered to be the fifth taste, following salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. It is unique because of the way it interacts with other taste receptors to make whatever touches your tongue seem simply more delicious. There’s speculation that umami flavors are related to fermentation, as foods like cured meats, dried shiitake mushrooms, and dried sardines have more intense flavors than their fresh counterparts. Other umami-rich products include parmesan cheese, soy sauce, fish sauce, hot sauce, Worchestershire sauce, Vegemite, tomatoes, beer, and some wines.
If you want a truly dynamic experience with this enigmatic fifth flavor, keep an open mind to food and wine combinations that may meld the savory character of umami on your palate.
Zac King, General manager of Ten, suggested pairing sherry—“and not your mom’s cooking sherry from the ’70s,” he said—with the “musty-mushroom” of miso soup, or fish with higher fat content like bluefin toro and sea urchin. If you’re not a sherry fan, he said other white wines on the menu like gruner veltliner from Austria will also complement most of the Japanese menu items.
“This varietal tends to be very light bodied, slightly acidic, and full of minerality, nicely contrasting the umami flavors in our food,” King said. “We also have the Tascante Buonora carricante from Sicily, which is dry and balances the delicate flavors of Japanese foods, and the subtle flavors of sashimi.”
On the other side of town (and the other side of the globe), Mas offers up some Spanish pairings. Fortified wines like Oloroso or Amontillado sherries from Jerez, Spain, Madeira from Portugal, and Marsala from Sicily, are also super-rich with umami. They have a dry, oxidative, mushroomy quality that is really the epitome of umami flavor in wine.
The menu at Mas offers an expansive collection of sherries worth working your way through. Chef Tomas Rahal helped get me started by introducing me to the the Hidalgo “Faraon” Oloroso from Jerez, Spain. Neither too rich nor too sweet, exuding notes of caramel and dried figs, it’s a perfect pairing for foie gras or liver, Rahal said.
“[Spanish] sherries, Madeiras, and non-fortified wines are products of patient, slow vinification,” he said. “Many are from old vines and ancient soils and see considerable time on the lees, and in barrel-aging in contact with wild yeasts. The end results are deep and full-flavored, reflecting the totality of their environments.”
For a little bit of everything, head up Route 29 for some small plates and the extensive wine list at recently-opened Parallel 38. Owner Justin Ross recommended the 2012 Domaine Christian Lauverjat Sancerre ($48 on the restaurant’s wine list), which is smooth and round with hints of smoke, river bed minerals, and tangy citrus.
“Any time we’re pairing multiple items with one wine we turn to wines that have umami qualities because they allow the diner to experience many different sensations throughout their meal,” Ross said.
Umami in wine is created simply from yeast, and fermentation, especially when aged sur lie (wine that is aged on top of, or stirred into the dead yeast cells created during fermentation), with the dead yeast cells acting as a source for amino acids. Muscadet from the Loire Valley is a great example of this theory. It’s made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape, which benefits from aging sur lie, creating a richer body in an otherwise tart, mineral driven wine. The Bruno Cormerais Muscadet Sevre et Maine ($32.95 at Tastings) is an eclectic, opulent version of wine from this region.
Big, fat, ripe, buttery chardonnays and Champagnes seem to have the most profound flavors, and aging Champagne “en tirage” (or on the lees) after secondary bottle fermentation creates flavor distinctions consistent with umami. Ulysse Collin Champagne ($69.95 at Tastings) is savory, bready, yeasty, and seethes this sumptuous mouth feel.
The Rare Wine Company, based in Portugal, created a special series attributed to the long history of Madeira. One of these labels is the “Thomas Jefferson Special” ($79.99 at Market Street Wine Shop), which ties Madeira’s history all the way back to Virginia—Thomas Jefferson was evidently a lover of these wines, evidenced by bottle pieces discovered at Monticello. Madeira is a fortified wine meant to last forever, with off dry, salty, caramel, and dried mushroom notes, finishing with a touch of honey-like sweetness. With almost 20 percent alcohol, a little bit goes a long way, as the complex layers of flavors add contemplation before, during, or after dinner.
What umami means
Umami was identified by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda in the early 1900s. He wondered if the sea-
weed that gave flavor to Japanese broth could do the same for other foods. He discovered that the active ingredient in the seaweed was glutamic acid. Glutamic acid, or glutamate, has a taste distinctive from sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Ikeda named it “umami” from the Japanese words umai (delicious) and mi (essence), and created monosodium glutamate (MSG), a sodium salt that enhances umami flavors.