What is umami and why should wine lovers care? Haven’t foods and wines become complicated enough without having to understand one more odd sounding concept?
The simple answer is this: When you think of the many food and drink combinations that seem like the most natural in the world—like coffee and donuts, sushi and beer, rare tuna and light red wines, green tea and red bean mochi cakes, and even hot dogs with ketchup or a bag of corn chips downed with a classic cola—the assumption is these combinations work well because of the way various sensations of sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness and occasionally hot spiciness come together pretty much in perfect harmony and balance.
Some time ago, food scientists came to another conclusion as to why we unconsciously enjoy so many combinations based upon the recognition of this distinct component called umami, found in many of the everyday things we love to consume.
The taste of umami is less obvious than the other five sensations. More often than not, umami manifests itself as an overall reaction on the palate to certain foods and beverages that are rich in amino acids, whether attained through cooking processes or activated by high amino acid ingredients already existing in certain foods. It is not, however, a textural quality (hard, soft, smooth, crunchy, etc.), but rather a “savory,” “delicious,” or somewhat “meaty” sensation.
According to the Japanese chemist, Kikunae Ikeda, who made the first formal
identification of umami back in 1908, umami is one of only two sensations (along with sweetness) that the palate perceives as pleasant. Sensations of salt, sour, and bitter, on the other hand, are not pleasing in themselves, except when digested in moderation or experienced in the context of other sensations.
A common demonstration of umami’s pleasing taste is a pinch of MSG (monosodium glutamate) mixed into lukewarm water. MSG is essentially a sodium salt of glutamic acid originally manufactured from seaweeds to stimulate high amino acid umami sensations. What the palate feels is a stimulation of saliva, alerting the taste buds and tactile senses, giving a mouth-watering effect while boosting aroma-related sensations of flavor. Umami, in other words, enhances flavor, and can even make the blandest foods taste “delicious.” And, in fact, this is a reason why MSG is a key ingredient in countless commercial packaged foods.
Lest there be any further misunderstanding, when we are talking about umami we are not just talking about a sensation found in foods or beverages. We are also talking about actual taste buds on the tongue that are particularly sensitive to umami, thus more likely to be stimulated by food components such as monosodium glutamate. Sugar tastes sweet, salt tastes salty, and high amino acid ingredients taste like, well, umami.
In recent years two American scientists named Charles Zuker and Charles Ryber have identified these specific taste bud cells as T1R1 and T1R3 (without, however, pinpointing any specific area of the tongue where they are located) which, working in tandem, create palate receptors sensitive to umami — particularly foods high in glutamates or amino acids.
When it comes to foods and wines, the perception of amino acid compounds occurs in many instances. While the taste of wines is primarily driven by components that are easily understood, such as the sweetness of residual sugar, the bitterness of tannin or sourness of acidity, wines also contain small amounts of amino acid, which add to the sensations giving us distinct pleasure.
Within the wine industry, one of the earliest exponents of umami is Master of Wine Tim Hanni. Hanni is one of the more peculiar wine experts because he doesn’t drink wine (Hanni is, laudably, a survivor of alcoholism). But that doesn’t mean Hanni can’t taste wine and continue to influence many others. According to Hanni, only the phenomenon of umami explains the “deliciousness created by fermenting, curing and preserving” of certain foods.
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 red wines in which amino acids are more in balance with other taste components—seem to naturally relate to more foods. According to Fernanda Cosme in Journal of Food Science & Technology, “The major free amino acids found in the most varieties of Vitis vinifera grapes are arginine, proline, alanine and glutamic acid. Usually the highest concentrations are found in the final phase of the ripeness of the grapes (Klosse, 2013). Regarding to the distribution of the amino acid in the berry (sic), its predominance is verified in grape skin for Vitis rotundifolia (i.e. muscadine) grapes (Lamikanra and Kassa, 1999).”
“In general,” adds Pekka Lehtonen (Determination of Amines and Amino Acids in Wine), “red wines contain significantly more amines (contained in amino acids) than do white wines… Red wine contains 300 to 1300 mg/L of the most abundant amino acid, proline, which means that proline accounts for 30% to 85% of the total amino acid content. Next in abundance are alanine, glutamic acid + glutamine, arginine, and γ-aminobutyric acid.”
In plainer English, it is red wines—which, unlike whites, are fermented in contact with their grape skins where amines are concentrated—that are more likely to give the taste of umami. This is why lighter tannin reds such as a soft, fruity yet multi-spice scented Grenache (a.k.a. Garnacha), Cinsault, Pinot noir and even easy drinking styles of red Zinfandel, Mourvèdre or Petite Sirah seem to taste so good with, say, a wood grilled salmon or tuna steak. It also explains why smoother styles of reds are often amazingly simpatico with oysters, clams, mussels, squid, salt cod and other unlikely varieties of fish, especially in saffon laced bouillabaisse, bourrides, cioppino, and other seafood broths.
Umami, in short, is the factor behind the feeling of epiphany often experienced by wine lovers when they first come to the realization that many red wines go better with fish dishes than most white wines.
By Randy Caparoso
Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist/photographer living in Lodi, California. In a prior incarnation, he was a multi-award winning restaurateur, starting as a sommelier in Honolulu (1978 through 1988), and then as Founding Partner/VP/Corporate Wine Director of the James Beard Award winning Roy’s family of restaurants (1988-2001), opening 28 locations from Hawaii to New York. While with Roy’s, he was named Santé’s first Wine & Spirits Professional of the Year (1998) and Restaurant Wine’s Wine Marketer of the Year (1992 and 1998). Between 2001 and 2006, he operated his own Caparoso Wines label as a wine producer. For over 20 years, he also bylined a biweekly wine column for his hometown newspaper, The Honolulu Advertiser (1981-2002). He currently puts bread (and wine) on the table as Editor-at-Large and the Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal (founded in 2007 as Sommelier Journal), and freelance blogger and social media director for Lodi Winegrape Commission (lodiwine.com). You may contact him at [email protected]