You Know Sweet, Sour, Salt, & Bitter, But Who’s Umami?

Chapter Two, Part Five.
Caroline in Tuscan Kitchen 1_edited-1Experts have long believed you only perceive four tastes – sweet, sour, salt and bitter – but another taste was identified in Japan over 100 years ago that has only recently gained acceptance in gustatory circles worldwide. Umami is a subtle taste that’s easily masked by more assertive flavors. It is best described as meaty, satisfying and rich, which sounds kind of like the perfect date.

Western palates are generally unaccustomed to recognizing umami so don’t lose any sleep if you find it illusive. When I first learned of umami I undertook a grueling exploration that increased the scope of my taste nearly as much as it increased the scope of my waist. Believe me, it’s not the first time I’ve had to buy a few belts for this blog.

I will report the details of my umami quest in detail in a later post but today’s agenda is about all five basic tastes – sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami – and how each can be perceived in wine.

Look for the rich, beefy, mouth-filling traits of umami in very old, earthy reds from Bordeaux or Barolo. It can also be found in full-bodied, ripe, creamy Chardonnays but perhaps the most noticeable example of umami in wine can be found in white wines that undergo prolonged contact with the lees (the dead yeast cells that settle to the bottom of the tank or bottle during fermentation). Yeast is a potent umami host which explains why umami can be easily spotted in rich Champagnes that have spent years locked in the bottle with the lees.

Sweetness is certainly not as stealthy as umami and is a common and easily recognized taste in many wines. If you’re like a good deal of the people from my generation you may have started down the soggy road to wine appreciation by drinking sweet Portuguese rosés or simple German wines with names like Liebfraumilch (mother’s milk) or Zeller Schwarze Katz (black cat of Zell).

Back in the day I overindulged in these oddly named wines but I learned my lesson after a bad experience with Weingut Kaanought Schtoppenpukin. Today I’m much more conservative in my German wine intake because there’s nothing as disconcerting as waking up to learn you’ve lost your lederhosen – again.

If you have sampled citrusy Sauvignon Blanc, particularly those produced in New Zealand, you have probably tasted sourness in wine. These concentrated whites are frequently described as tasting like grapefruit, which is as sour a fruit as you’re likely to find in a glossary of wine terms. Now don’t fret if you have grapefruit allergies. No one is adding grapefruit juice to your Sauvignon Blanc, although that is not an uncommon assumption. In fact I once heard a wine store owner ask a winemaker when he added the grapefruit juice to his wine – and his wine was a Cabernet Sauvignon. Really. You can’t make this stuff up. The characteristic people describe as tart or sour is actually imparted by the high levels of natural acidity common in many white varietals.

Bitterness, although not common in wine, is occasionally present. While it’s not generally desirable, a little bitterness can leave a pleasing impression especially among those who are used to it, for example disgruntled postal workers and married people.

Bitterness in wine is often confused with astringency. Bitter is a basic taste and astringency is a texture or irritation imparted by tannins. Whether you taste bitter or feel astringent is purely an academic argument, because the sensations are so closely linked that if you dislike one you won’t like the other. In the end, what really matters is that you know your tolerance for the sensation so you can choose the right wine and then match it with food that won’t accentuate the bitter attributes.

Bitter tastes are created by a number of factors. An overly high alcohol level or excessive oak aging are two common culprits. In red wines bitterness comes from skins and seeds that have been damaged or from unripe tannins found in immature grapes. Unripe tannin in wine is like a Larry King marriage; they shouldn’t be together in the first place and it always leads to a bitter finish.

Salt in wine? I bet you thought this one would stump me. I’ve tasted far too many wines not to have encountered a few salty ones. Muscadet-Sevre et Maine is produced along the Loire River close to the Atlantic coastline. The Muscadet grape (also known as Melon de Bourgogne) can be pretty boring so the producers store it over the winter in contact with the lees to enrich the flavor. During this process some wines have been known to pick up the salty sea-breeze characteristics of the nearby Atlantic Ocean. Similar salty traits can be found in some Manzanilla Sherries which are aged in the city of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, also on the Atlantic coastline.

When pairing the five basic tastes in wine with tastes in food, many interesting flavors can be created, but beware, interaction between the tastes could be succulent or they could just suck.

Chefs have studied the effects of combining sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami and principles have been recognized regarding which ingredients pair well with one another and which don’t. Once you learn to recognize the five basic tastes in wine you can treat wine like another ingredient in a well-planned menu and apply these principles to your food and wine pairing choices.