No, Virginia, umami isn’t a long tent dress one wears on vacation. Rather, umami is described as the fifth taste sensation, along with sweet, sour, bitter and salty.
The word dates back to 1908, when Kikunae Ikeda, the creator of monosodium glutamate (MSG), isolated glutamates as a fifth taste source and called it umami. Ikeda contended that, even though it was salty, umami was distinct from the salt we taste on our tongues.
According to the Umami Information Center, “umami is a pleasant savory taste imparted by glutamate…and ribonucleotides…, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products.”
In the wine world, why do we care about umami? Well, it turns out that it plays a key role in how we enjoy food and wine together.
Two years ago, I had the privilege of hearing Master of Wine Tim Hanni speak at WineShop At Home’s national convention. Tim is an expert in all things wine, including umami. In fact, one of his nicknames is “the swami of umami.”
According to Tim, coupling wine with an umami-rich food such as asparagus can result in a bitter, unhappy tasting experience. The good news is that Tim has a simple solution for this problem. He tells us to add lemon and salt to the asparagus. Really? Really. Adding lemon and salt gets rid of the bitter, unhappy tasting experience. The wine gets smoother and softer.
Tim has written a number of scientific papers about how this works. He’s also written a lot about umami. I’m very new to umami, so I have a lot to learn. But the lemon and salt solution feels like a great start.
In the next couple of weeks, I’m planning to do a little test, and I would love for you to do the same. I’m going to pair steamed asparagus with a Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m then going to add salt and lemon to the asparagus and repeat the tasting. I’ll probably follow up this first experiment with some other wines.
I would love for you to share your experiences here.
For now, when wine and food tasting, consider the Fantastic Four flavors – salt, sour, bitter, sweet – plus umami, that little something extra that can mean the difference between liking a wine and food pairing and loving it!