It’s not sweet, sour, salty or bitter. It’s sort of savory, kind of subtle and definitely delicious, and it’s a pain to pair with wine. We’re talking about umami (pronounced oo-MOM-ee)—that mysterious fifth flavor we detect on our tongues.
Discovered in 1908, Professor Ikeda at Tokyo Imperial University first isolated this mysterious taste when eating a traditional Japanese broth that featured seaweed—which contains the active ingredient glutamic acid, or glutamate. Distinctive from any other known taste, he named this interesting acid “umami,” from the Japanese words umai, “delicious,” and mi, “essence.”
Miso and soy sauce feature this fifth flavor in spades, as do mushrooms, cooked tomatoes and cured meats and aged cheeses. Ever wonder why that sprinkling of Parmesan has such great effect? Now you know.
But as tasty as umami is, it’s not the easiest to partner with wine. The perfect pours are those that do not overpower its mid-palate sensation, yet have enough texture to match it. Here are some outstanding options.
These naturally savory wines match subtle Japanese dashi-flavored dishes perfectly:
Umami layers found in shiitake mushrooms and seaweed-infused dishes nicely match these mature Champagnes:
Drappier 2006 Grande Sendrée Brut (Champagne)
Pol Roger 2004 Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill Brut (Champagne)
Spanish tapas dishes like jamón and aged Manchego pair perfectly with these rich Sherry bottlings, which burst with umami:
Bodegas Dios Baco S.L. NV Élite Amontillado Sherry (Jerez)
Delgado Zuleta NV Premium Fino Sherry (Jerez)
Sip these gamey reds made with Nebbiolo when eating cooked mushrooms:
Proprietà Sperino 2010 (Lessona)
Travaglini 2009 Riserva (Gattinara)
Anchovies or brined fish match these dry, mineral Rieslings:
Malat 2014 Silberbichl Reserve Riesling (Kremstal)
Wittmann 2014 Westhofen Morstein Riesling Trocken GG (Rheinhessen)