Sunday, July 31, 2011

Umami and Wine

Wine can have a savory taste, I've experienced it countless times. It is not specific to a grape variety, I find, more to certain places and techniques of wine making. For example, Jura wines, some red and almost every white have a certain umami taste to me. And most Sherries aged under flor. Many Champagnes too. Where does this umami taste in wine come from?

It is glutamate that gives the savory or umami taste in food. Parmesan cheese, fermented foods like fish sauce and miso paste, clams, tomatoes, meat and bones - these foods are high in umami taste. Japanese scientists have studied the umami taste for a long time. One of their discoveries regarding food might help to explain the savory taste in wine. Quoting the wikipedia article:

One of (Akira) Kuninaka's most important discoveries was the synergistic effect between ribonucleotides and glutamate. When foods rich in glutamate are combined with ingredients that have ribonucleotides, the resulting taste intensity is higher than the sum of both ingredients.
I'm not suggesting that there are glutamates combing with ribonucleotides in wine. Is there glutamate in wine? Ribonucleotides? I don't know, but I doubt it. There must be something else going on. But maybe there are certain molecules that combine with others to heighten whatever umami taste there might be in certain wines. For example, Sherry and Champagne both come from very chalky soils. Maybe something of this chalk combines with something that happens under flor to bring this taste. (Jura wines raised sous voile have the most umami taste too - could the yeast layer be imparting something that acts on our tongues the way glutamate acts?) And in the case of Champagne, the chalk combined with extended contact with lees?

Sorry, but I am asking questions that I cannot answer. Just been thinking about this lately, that's all. And the other night I experienced something that really got my wheels spinning. I was eating dinner at Tsukushi, a great Japanese restaurant in midtown, and the chef served a small bowl of tofu and simmered daikon radish, both topped with a type of seaweed that I've never seen before. When it was still dry it looked almost like tangled olive green string, like the material one might use to make hair for a child's doll. When wet, it turned brown. There was a bit of broth at the bottom of the bowl which to me tasted like dashi that had been liberally infused with white pepper.

We were drinking 2005 Domaine de Montbourgeau Savagnin, $35, Imported by Neal Rosenthal Wine Merchant. On it's own the wine was fragrant with orchard fruit and very mineral, with an oxidative complexity and length - just delicious. But with the tofu and daikon dish, the seaweed and the dashi broth interacted with the wine to amplify the umami character of the food and to bring the savory character of the wine to an intense level. It felt during that dish as though I had chicken broth in my glass. And yes, this was a highly pleasurable experience.

If you can explain this sort of thing, I'm all ears. I definitely appreciate the science behind taste. And then there is also a part of me that simply wants to lose myself in the experience, to leave the mystery unsolved, and to drink a lot more Jura wine at Tsukushi.


Asher Rubinstein said...

If you're going to have chicken broth in your glass, I find that Riedel's Syrah glass is even better than Riedel's chicken glass because of the bigger bowl.

Andrzej Daszkiewicz said...

It's probably due mostly to yeasts. Yeast extract is one of the main commercial sources of umami, as mentioned here:
Tim Hanni has studied umami, also in the context of wine, for many years, he has written a lot about umami and wine on his blog, for example here:

Greetings from Poland!

Anonymous said...

Grant Achatz was serving the same wine with his turtle soup during the Paris 1906 menu at Next (the restaurant). A very interesting pairing. On its own the wine was overpowering, but paired with the turtle soup, it somehow just worked perfectly.

Anonymous said...

Why would you doubt glutamate in wine? Yeast autolysis has a fine tradition and is widely used on a large scale as a way of producing glutamate.

The self-digestion of lees in Muscadet, in Champagne, anywhere, is a way of adding umami and other complexity to wine.

Count on it.


Brooklynguy said...

Man, I feel like an idiot. I seem to have forgotten that wine is a FERMENTED beverage, and that like miso paste or other fermented food, it should have some umami character.

And thanks for reminding us of the science, SFJoe.

Tim Hanni MW said...

Umami plays a very important role in wine flavor and in food and wine interactions.

Glutamate is naturally found in the grapes, disappears through fermentation but is also synthesized and excreted by yeast. yeast die and autolyze - major source of nucleotides. Lees stirring, aging on tirage clearly provide yummy, creamy umami taste - umami also suppresses bitterenss. Extended maceration increases umami taste in red wines; softens tannins, increases breadth of flavor.

You are right on about the association with flor yeast and umami taste, a reason why I add good quality Sherry or Madeira to almost everything I cook.

It is important to note foods high in umami require judicious addition of salt and acidity (usually citrus, but not sweet citrus like meyer lemons or oranges). Asparagus, ham, fish, red meats, etc. will all make wine MORE bitter and tannic without. Makes it easy to see why food is well salted and above items are all served with lemon in Europe!The strong umami taste in the food generates a sensory adaptation that supresses umami and sweetness in food making wine usually less pleasant.

But easy to fix!!

Richard Auffrey said...

Umami is created not only by glutamic acid, but also by inosinate and guanylate, two nucleotides. The synergistic effect, of intensifying umami, happens when you combine two different sources of umami, i.e glumatic acid & inosinate, or inosinate & guanylate.

Though wine does have some umami, it has a relatively small amount of glutamtic acid, an average of 10-90 mg/l. Beer has even less, only 10-15 mg/l. Consider that a potato has 102 mg/l and a tomato 246 mg/l.

Sake though has much more umami, especially certain types like Kimoto & Yahamai. On average, sake contains 100-250 mg/l, so even at its lowest amount, it still possesses more umami potential than wine. Lengthier fermentation periods tend to increase the amount of glumatic acid in a beverage.

As for Inosinate, it is mostly found in meat and seafood. As for Guanylate is mostly found in mushrooms.

Joe Manekin said...

I need to read this comment thread at least 3 more times....

Cager said...

Great comments--and a reminder that I need to make it up to Tsukushi more often.