Wine sales are at an all-time high in the United States, and this increased interest in wine brings an increased desire for new and unusual wine and food pairings.
Many well-known wine and food pairs like fish and white wine or a juicy steak with a robust red follow the simple and straightforward pairing philosophy that lighter foods pair well with lighter wines and heavier foods with more structured and heavier wines. It can get more interesting if you dig deeper into the actual breakdown of components in the foods and wines that give them such synergy. One example that can illustrate this scenario is with a taste sensation called “umami.”
Umami refers to our tongue’s ability to taste glutamates through special receptors in our mouth, and umami is accepted worldwide as the “fifth taste.” Everyone has heard about the most popular of glutamates: Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). Over many years, MSG has been maligned by the press and often confused by consumers, but that is changing as umami has become more understood. Umami can be found naturally in many foods; famously in seaweed and soy sauce, but also in tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms and meats. The umami levels can increase when foods undergo various transformations. The most basic example of this is the ripening of fruits and vegetables. A ripe tomato has 10 times the glutamate and therefore umami of an unripe tomato. Drying, curing, aging and fermentation techniques all increase the umami level in foods. Dried shiitake mushrooms and dried sardines have considerably more umami than their fresh counterparts. Why does aged beef have more flavor than non-aged beef? It has more umami. Fermentation gives soy sauce, fish sauces and many other condiments such as hot sauces and Worcestershire sauce lots of umami.
Just as foods have various levels of naturally occurring umami flavors so do some wines. It is the fermentation and/or aging of wines that gives them these significant flavor boosters. Big, rich, red wines, especially those with high ripeness levels such as California Zinfandels, and whites that have extended lees contact (lees are the residual yeast cells remaining after fermentation) such as ripe, creamy Chardonnays and full-bodied delicious Champagnes tend to have the most umami.
So how does one approach this umami phenomenon when trying to pair highly flavorful foods with wine? Foods considered to be full of umami flavor such as grilled meats or a rich stew can significantly increase bitterness in a wine that would otherwise not taste too bitter. This is the reason wine and food experts choose older wines for braised beef and chicken dishes or roasts. The reduced tannin in aged wines doesn’t clash with umami flavors in the finished dish. This is because the umami-rich food will suppress the umami effect in the wine, emphasizing the wine’s bitterness and astringency.
Try it for yourself. Since barbecue season has arrived; the next time you want to grill a steak, choose a bold, red wine that has a bit of age on it and compare it to a young and tannic red wine with your meat. You can decide for yourself what level of tannin and age suits your taste buds and desire for that “beefed” up umami experience.