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Friday, September 04, 2009

My friend Peter Musolf has written a marvelous review of a book entitled “Dashi and Umami: the Heart of Japanese Cuisine.” His review appears in the current issue of the Journal of Wine Economics, and includes a thought-provoking discussion of the relationship between umami and wine, and some reflections on how it impacts wine palates and preferences in Japan. I have posted a link to the entire article at the end of this excerpt:

“Umami and wine is a connection alluring to oenophilist gourmets. Experts say amino acids of several kinds are on hand in fermented grapes, the decay of yeast proteins after fermentation also contributing aminos to the finished product. Still, many tasters have a hard time picking out the subtle umami swirling within their Musigny and Krug.

Not so the Japanese, in my view, whose diet gives them a rigorous umami sensitivity training and can easily differentiate not just between dashi types but also, mindbogglingly, between the grades of bonito or shiitake used or the source of the kombu. A Japanese chef, for instance, will tell you what sets apart his clear soup is that he only uses the rishiri kelp variety and only that taken from the bed off Rebun Island’s Funadomari beach, the kombu equivalent of a grand cru vineyard in the Côtes de Nuits.

Japanese wine tasters, consequently, use the relative amount of umami they sense as a handy means of categorizing. Dashi-kei wines (“dashi family”) are those with much umami, ones an American taster might say, a little vaguely, have “minerality,” or as a French tasting friend of mine will flare his nostrils and remark: “mushroom!” Dashi-kei zya nai wines (“not dashi family”), on the other hand, are wines a Westerner might praise for “well-extracted fruit.” In Japan, this last category is also known as “Parker type.”

Within the dashi broth palate in Japan there is a division between “light taste” and “dark.” The first of these, a complimentary term, is used to describe the tendency in Kyoto cuisine and that of the surrounding region to season less with salt and oil (and never with sugar), relying mainly on the umami of highly concentrated dashi. Dark taste is typical of Tokyo and northern Japan, where the same dish would include more salt and soy sauce, oil (for example, pork fat), sugar, and a weaker dashi than the Kyoto version. This division parallels the “dashi family”—“not dashi family” dichotomy in wine.

Hence wines like fine champagne, with which Japan is fairly obsessed, and first-rate Riesling are felt to pair best with light taste cooking. “Parker type” wines go better with Tokyo seasoning. At the same time, a wine like an Henri Bonneau Châteauneuf-du-Pape stands with a foot in both camps, and it would be wrong to suggest all Japanese tasters think of their wines in black and white, or to imply that Robert Parker can’t see the dashi for the fruit.”

[From Peter Musolf review of “Dashi and Umami: the Heart of Japanese Cuisine” in the Journal of Wine Economics, Volume 4, Issue 1, Spring 2009]



Wawineman said...

The average Japanese citizen does not drink wine, so to think they possess a discrete taste for 'umami' in wine is, well, reaching at best. I do agree there are different grades of seaweed (nori) that are easily discernible as well as regional distinctions in cuisine that are too easily defined here. Dashi (soup base) and even rice can be scrutinized down to its prefectural origins. However, the fact remains that Japan is a sake-drinking nation ("rice wine") with beer a close second.

The foods of Japan do not pair well with ultra-premium red wines simply because beef is not a staple in their diet. Don't expect wine to make serious inroads in this country, even with the new generation of Japanese. Orca International has some success due to its Tokyo location, but go out to the smaller cities and wine bottles basically do not exist.

Just my personal experience...but another fascinating topic you've exposed!

PaulG said...

I'm no expert in Japan, so cannot comment on your comments, other than to mention that Japan is the leading foreign market for Washington wines, according to the Washington Wine Commission. I'm sure that the sales are in the big cities, and mostly in hotels and restaurants that cater to a business clientele, including non-natives. But still, someone is drinking wine over there!

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