Umami, first discovered by a group of scientists at the University of Tokyo in the last 1960’s, is considered to be the fifth taste. It creates an entirely new experience in food and wine and might teleport you to the next dimension of enjoyment.
Traditionally there are four tastes: salty, sweet, bitter, and sour (acidity). Everyone’s palate is different, but generally salty and sweet is perceived on the front of the tongue, bitterness in the back, and sour (acidity) on the sides. Saltiness is prevalent in wines that are produced in vineyards close to the ocean and salty sea air like the Sherry wines produced in the village of Jerez in the south of Spain. Sweetness is a result of high residual sugar levels prevalent in many dessert wines. Bitterness is ubiquitous with tannins in grape skins. Acidity is particularly perceived in high acid varietals like sauvignon blanc and pinot noir.
Umami gets a bad rap sometimes due to MSG, but foodstuffs naturally high in glutamates bring higher levels of umami. Soy sauce, fermented fish and cured salty meats are just to name a few.
From a basic wine perspective, umami is created by the combination of acid and salt and is further accentuated by the alcohol in the wine. High acid wines make salty umami foodstuffs taste better. Simplistically put, it has to do with the tongue’s receptors perceiving glutamate.
Umami delivers a euphoric like quality to the food and wine experience. So, if you’re wondering why certain wines tastes better with certain foods, especially salty ones, it’s most likely umami.