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Wine and Umami

by Randal Caparoso

When I used to think about all the wonderful food and beverage combinations I've had in my life—corn chips and coke, chocolate chip cookies and milk, ahi sashimi and Champagne, roast beef and Cabernet Sauvignon—I thought I enjoyed them because various sensations of sweetness, saltiness, sourness, and even bitterness were coming together in perfect harmony and balance. Recently I found that it might not be because of just these four elements of taste; but also because of another sensation, the fifth element known as umami.

If this taste sensation eludes you, don't worry because you are not alone. The sensation of umami is emphatically less obvious than sweet, salty, sour and bitter sensations. Umami more often manifests itself as an overall reaction, or feel of the palate, to certain foods and beverages. It is not, however, a textural quality (hard, soft, smooth, crunchy, etc.), but rather a "savory" or "delicious" sensation. A common demonstration of umami, for instance, is a pinch of MSG (monosodium glutamate) mixed into lukewarm water. What the palate feels is a stimulation of saliva, alerting the tactile senses and giving a mouth-watering effect.

According to the Japanese food scientist who made the first formal identification of umami in the 19th century, umami is one of the two senses (along with sweetness) that the palate perceives as pleasant. Sensations of saltiness, sourness, and bitterness, on the other hand, are not pleasant in themselves, except in the context of other sensations.

Lest there be any further misunderstanding, when we are talking about umami we are not talking just talking about a food sensation. We are also talking about actual physical cells, otherwise known as taste buds, on the tongue that are able to perceive combinations of amino acids such as MSG. Sugar tastes sweet, salt tastes salty, and amino acids taste, well, like umami! Very recently, two American scientists named Charles Zuker and Charles Ryber have identified these specific taste bud cells as "T1R1" and "T1R3."

The perception of amino acids occurs when we taste many types and combinations of foods and wines, which also contain small amounts (roughly 20 grams per liter) of amino acids, and most notably in complex foods that give us distinct pleasure. One of the leading exponents of umami today happens to be a Master of Wine named Tim Hanni. According to Hanni, only the phenomenon of umami explains the "deliciousness created by fermenting, curing and preserving" certain foods such as a well-matured wheel of Italian Parmigiano, dried shiitake mushrooms, and sweet, vine-ripened tomatoes. It also explains the earthy, highly restorative powers of dashi (broth made with bonita flakes and umami-rich dried kelp) when added to Japanese dishes, the electrical, hot-sweet reaction of sambal (chile paste) when added to Southeast Asian dishes, and even the blatant appeal of 11 herbs and spices in fried chicken.

Not surprisingly, it is in Asian cuisines—in which ingredients and cooking techniques are often very simple, even bland, but very strong in the sum total of parts—that umami plays a significant role. That is to say, more so than in American cooking, where quantity and even excess (i.e., a blood-rare slab of beef, the cream and sugar in ice cream, the salty crunch of potato chips) hold more appeal than the subtle interaction of umami in combination with other taste sensations.

The significance of umami when it comes to wine is multifold. It goes a long way toward explaining why certain wines—especially more complex and mature wines—seem to naturally relate to more foods. A refined, silken, crisp-yet-soft, fruity–yet–multi-spice-scented Pinot Noir, for instance, seems to do a lot more for wood-grilled salmon than does a soft, fruity-but-simple, one-dimensional Beaujolais made from the Gamay grape. The wider range of contrasting sensations of wines made from Pinot Noir tend to stimulate a more umami-like effect on the palate. This is why Pinot Noir, as opposed to other red varietals, often proves to be amazingly simpatico with oysters, clams, mussels, squid, salt cod and other fish, especially in bourrides and cioppino. In fact, umami explains the jolt often experienced by wine-lovers when they first discover how Pinot Noir goes better with certain seafoods than most white wines!

Years ago I did a tasting to explore the possibilities of pairing Cabernet Sauvignon—the thickest, fullest and richest of California's red wine grapes—with different foods. I tried salads, fish, game, beef, and even sweet or bitter chocolate desserts with a number of different Cabernet Sauvignons. These included young and soft Cabernets, young and hard (high-tannin) Cabernets, simple Cabernets, complex Cabernets, fruity Cabernets, earthy and leathery Cabernets, and an older, well-matured Cabernet. Some Cabernet Sauvignons worked better with certain dishes than others, but the one Cabernet that seemed to work better than all the others across the board was a richly matured, smooth and suave ten-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon made by Silver Oak. Why? I would attribute it to umami-like effects: the mature, quietly balanced qualities of the wine drawing out more savory sensations on the palate, and thus allowing it to embrace a broad range of food sensations.

When it comes to food preparations, the significance of umami determines many of our wine selections. A young, thick, fruity California Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance, is predictably good with a simple cut of wood-charred beef. But if you braise beef with a myriad of seasonings and vegetables and serve it in a complex, natural reduction, a young, thick, fruity California Cabernet ends up tasting rough and somewhat belligerent with that dish. On the other hand, an older, earthier, less fruity but gentle style of Cabernet Sauvignon from France's Bordeaux region is more likely to taste round and smooth in the context of braised beef. It ain't the meat, it's the motion.

Hanni himself likes to illustrate the effect of umami by citing the way a squeeze of lemon is used in a well-salted bistecca alla fiorentina, beef raised and prepared as they do in Tuscany, Italy. It cuts through the fat and balances the salt of the dish, and then performs double duty by mellowing out the bitter tannins of young red wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon or Sangiovese grapes. Salty beef and lemon? Definitely unorthodox, but a graphic demonstration of umami-related effects.

Because we don't serve lemon with beef or have access to bistecca in the U.S., Hanni believes that the best wine for American-raised beef may very well be—brace yourself—White Zinfandel! Why? Because the slight sweetness and fruity flavors of White Zinfandel are more likely to soften the impact of wood-grilled beef's fat and char, thus achieving the flattering effect of umami.

But relax, beef- and Cabernet-lovers, you needn't embrace all of the ramifications of umami. If you prefer your favorite brand of heavy red wine with fatty beef or lamb, or a lemony, dry white wine with your fish and other white meats, the important thing is that you know what you like. Umami, after all, can be as much a state of mind as an actual taste sensation. And if a combination tastes good, that's because it is good.

Randal Caparoso

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