I started to appreciate umami a long time ago and jumped at the opportunity to go to a conference on the flavour in San Francisco with me Mum a couple of decades ago, we had a blast visiting a few wineries in the Napa Valley, yay! Needless to say umami taste – the fifth flavour after sweet, salt, sour and bitter – has fascinated me ever since.
How was the umami taste discovered?
Scientists have eureka moments in funny places: Archimedes in the bath; Newton under an apple tree; and Kikunae Ikeda in a bowl of seaweed.
Probably not well known to us by name, Kikunae Ikeda isolated a flavour from kombu seaweed in 1908 that created a multi-billion dollar industry selling something you definitely have heard of, MSG – monosodium glutamate.
Ikeda wanted to improve the lives of poor farmers by selling a seasoning that made simple vegetable and rice meals very satisfying.
He originally called this substance ‘umami’ – which in Japanese literally means ‘scrumptiousness’ or ‘delicious taste’.
It took until 2012 for scientists to discover glutamate receptors on the human tongue, and the umami taste became more generally accepted as the fifth flavour besides sweet, salt, bitter and sour.
Why does umami make us feel good?
The taste of umami is sometimes translated as ‘broth-like’, ‘meaty’ or ‘savoury’.
While manufacturing glutamic acid by boiling down huge vats of kombu seaweed Ikeda wondered: why do we have a taste for umami?
We have taste to alert us to important things in food: sweetness means carbohydrate and energy; saltiness means mineral nutrition; sourness means acids, which become common in foods going off; bitterness is the taste of alkaline compounds, which you find in poisons.
But what did umami detect? Ikeda's answer was amino acids, the building blocks of protein.
Ever felt totally satisfied after a steak and a great red wine? Chances are it was umami and a meal in perfect balance, and the body’s natural taste receptors rewarding you for it.
MSG has a bad rep outside many Asian countries, but studies have shown it to be safe and some studies even say that MSG is particularly linked with feelings of satisfaction, relaxation and even happiness.
How does umami work in wine pairing?
The name UMAMU Estate was born from a passion for achieving that umami-like contentment in our wines, on our plates, and in our lives.
You can't locate a special 'umami' taste area on the tongue either, so a lot of it is down to personal taste and preference.
That's why we love for our wine drinkers to have a conversation with each bottle, as they find their umami with our well-balanced wines.
American MW Tom Hanni was one of the first sommeliers to celebrate umami as a healthy, satisfying and important flavour but he says it can make a lot go wrong when wine pairing.
In his publication Wine with Food, he warns that umami-rich foods can:
- Intensify the bitterness, acidity, astringency and burning sensation of alcohol in a wine pairing
- Decrease the body, richness, sweetness and fruit in a wine pairing
He talks about common umami-rich 'enemies' to wine like asparagus, mushrooms, tomatoes, aubergines, cured or smoked seafood and meats, and ripe soft cheeses.
But all is not lost.
Hanni also talks a lot about Flavour Balancing, where if you're aware of the umami flavour in a dish overpowering the umami in a wine, you can quickly fix it.
He recommends you adjust the dish with some acidity (think lemon or vinegar) and/or some more salty flavour and – voila! – you can get back to the good kind of umami.
Here's a graph of umami-rich foods from Wine Industry Advisor
(Read more about flavour balancing umami with Tom Hanni in a .pdf here.)
Ready to experiment with umami?
All wines naturally have glutamic acid, which make umami flavours, in them as the skins in a wine contain amino acids from which it is made.
But the wines with the strongest umami taste are likely to be sparkling wines as the added yeast and fermentation process naturally produces even more glutamic acids.
It's a similar fermentation process that gives cheese its umami flavour.
The strong umami base is why sparkling wines pair well with the intense umami flavours in oysters, for example. Other examples of umami-rich dishes are with aubergines, tomato sauce, parmesan, and the tofu and fermented bean curds of east Asia.
To have a great conversation between a sparkling wine and a pairing, you can start with a strong umami-rich food as the base of the dish, and then taste and adjust the acidity and salt until your body says 'WOW!'.
We have created five recipe combinations with UMAMU Estate sparkling wines and an umami-rich dish for wine pairing.
Master the umami taste with these sensational oysters: UMAMU Estate Sparkling with Oysters three ways
Adjust the toppings on this indulgent seafood pairing: UMAMU Sparkling Chardonnay with C Restaurant Scallop-Liquorice-Grape, Mushroom & Celery Duxelle
A simple, comforting celebration: UMAMU Sparkling with Roughly Pesto with Buckwheat Pasta, Gluten & Diary Free
For sweet, salty, and packed with tropical umami taste try: UMAMU Estate Sparkling MacAnn with Rambutan and Crunchy Pork Canapes Gluten and Dairy Free