Discovering Umami

Food & Drink - November 6th, 2009
Wine Umami

by J.K. Whelehan

Typically most of us are only aware of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter tastes.

There is, however, a fifth taste, called umami. A Japanese word that translates literally as ‘delicious taste,’ umami is more commonly described as ‘savory.’ In fact, the identification of its source in 1907 by Professor Kikunae Ikeda led to the development of monosodium glutamate (MSG). To educate your palate try tasting a pinch of MSG in a glass of warm water. Traditionally, the key sources of umami were konbu (dried kelp), katsuobushi (dried bonito shavings), and dried shiitake, along with dashi stock, which serves a similar function to bouillon in Western cuisine.

Can you guess then which ingredient currently in season is high in umami? Yes, mushrooms. Japanese say “kaori matsutake, aji shimeji,” or “matsutake for aroma, shimeji for flavor.” But when it comes to pairing with wine, it is the umami which creates the challenge, by underscoring any bitterness in it.

Champagne in general goes well with different kinds of mushrooms due to the fact it is aged with lees, which is a sediment full of umami. Mushrooms with earthy or forest floor aromas can match with reds such as aged Merlot from the right bank of Bordeaux or Pinot, which share the same type of aromas. Avoid tannic young reds with spicy aromas.

Farmed mushrooms, which do not have the above characteristics, tend to pair better with whites. If the mushrooms are cooked in butter, try a rich barrel aged Chardonnay. Look for one that has undergone malolactic fermentation and bâtonnage (stirring of lees), as it imparts a compatible buttery character. Alternatively, try a light red such as a Crianza from Rioja. The key is to select a light red with good acidity that can cope with butter.

For a simple match try a Dôle from Switzerland (to be original) with grilled shiitake and a few drops of soy sauce, as “life is too short to stuff a mushroom.”

J.K. Whelehan is a Tokyo-based wine expert and writer, as well as co-author
of the best-selling book Japanese Dishes for Wine Lovers, published by
Kodansha and available from Amazon.