Wine and Umami can be a tricky combination to get right. Umami is the fifth taste along with salt, sweet, sour and bitter. It is the taste that makes something irresistible. The word Umami comes from the Japanese term for delicious. It was identified as the ‘fifth taste’, in 1908 by the Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda who identified the active natural ingredient in Umami as glutamic acid or glutamate. The synthetic version is commercially known as MSG or Monosodium Glutamate.
In fermented beverages, wine is made from fermented grape juice, you find umami, the level increases in wines that have been made from very ripe grapes from low yielding vines and in wines that have been aged.
Umami is not the easiest partner to wine. If the wine has high tannins when paired with a dish that is high in umami it will be screamingly bitter. However, many foods that are high in umami also tend to be higher in salt, cured ham, bacon and cured cheese, smoked seafood. Salt is ‘wine friendly’ and has the effect of balancing the flavours.
We have tasted it as babies because breast milk has high levels of umami. A tasty broth is also rich in umami as are hard cheeses such as Parmesan y blue cheese. Jamón, cooked meat, seafood, tomatoes, mushrooms, olives . Umami enhances flavours that is why a cheeseburger with ketchup or a plate of Jamón Serrano with cured hard cheese are so irresistible.
A good combination to match a umami rich food is with a wine that is low in tannin but relatively high in acidity. The Italians do this brilliantly with a umami rich bolognese sauce with a Chianti, a red wine that is low in tannins but has good acidity.
A vintage Champagne and Cava, high acidity with a pronounced yeasty flavour, works well with umami rich foods, such as oysters and smoked salmon.
What could be better than a high quality jamón and cured cheese with a glass of Fino or if you prefer an Amontillado Sherry
Crisp, aromatic white wines such as aRiesling from Germany or a Grüner Veltliner from Austria or New Zealand or a Godello from Valdeorras in Galicia are versatile wines that and are perfect to accompany seafoods dishes.
Older wines such a Rioja Gran Reserva or an aged Barolo from Italy, where the tannins have mellowed over time make an excellent match for a dish that with a sauce that is rich in umami.
The more you learn about taste and flavours by experimenting with different taste combinations are your favourites.