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Dear Dr. Vinny,
Can a wine taster detect umami in the glass?
—Drago B., Slovenia
Umami, the Japanese term for the “fifth taste,” doesn’t have a precise English translation, but it’s often referred to as “savory.” Mushrooms, soy sauce, shellfish and tomatoes are all said to be high in umami.
“Savory” is a actually a big component of describing wine, even if the word “umami” isn’t specifically used. Especially when it comes to a wine whose fruit flavors aren’t particularly powerful, ripe or sweet, there are plenty of other components to pick out, such as mineral, smoke, earth or sanguine flavors.
While it’s rare, I have seen “umami” used as a descriptor in wine, and I have personally picked out notes in wine that are high in umami, especially mushrooms. Some grapes lend themselves to these flavors, and it’s thought that rich red wines, especially those with barrel aging, can coax umami flavors out of wine. Even white wines can have a touch of umami, particularly those with extended lees contact.
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