This Week's Staff Training Focus - Food and Wine Taste Interactions
For those studying food and wine, especially when trying to navigate the rigors of an exam and blind tasting experience such as for WSET training - Umami is a sensation that is not easily digested.
When you place food in your mouth your taste buds adapt so that the perception of the levels of sugar, salt, acidity, etc. in what you taste next can be altered.
An extreme example of this is the unpleasantly acidic taste of orange juice just after you brush your teeth. Similarly, chocolate and thick creamy dishes have mouth-coating effect that can impair the sense of taste.
There are two components in food that tend to make wines taste ‘harder’ (more astringent and bitter, more acidic, less sweet and less fruity). These are sweetness and umami.
There are also two components in food that can make a wine taste ‘softer’ (less astringent and bitter, less acidic, sweeter, and more fruity). These are salt and acid.
Lets focus on one of these components…UMAMI
What is Umami?
Umami is a taste, and is distinct from other primary tastes (sweet, salt, sour, bitter), but is hard to identify sometimes when other components are present – which is often. Umami is essentially the savory side of taste, and is most present in foods that have been aged (parmesan cheese, cured meats, soy sauce), have certain kinds of sodium (MSG), or have earthy flavors (mushrooms, especially when cooked). It is also present in wines that have been aged over time, especially those aged in wood, such as Chianti, Rioja, Ports, and older Cabernet based wines.
Umami foods low in salt, such as asparagus, eggs and mushrooms, tend to be a challenge when pairing to wines. Conversely, foods with umami and salt, such as cured or smoked seafood or meats and hard cheeses, tend to work better with wines.
Generally, food has more impact on the way a wine will taste than the other way around.
As an example of how this interaction and perception can work in different ways: I remember a dish I once had that was an omelet filled with smoked salmon and brie cheese – which we enjoyed with a bottle of Chianti Classico. Not the first thing you may think to drink with that dish, but the pairing worked incredibly well. The dish, which had three umami rich components, was able to off-set the tannin in the wine and allow the fruit to come out. It was such a good pairing, I still remember the experience 25 years later.