Wine guru Tim Hanni first taught me the concept of "umami" (oo MAH mee) eight years ago, and ever since, I've spread his teachings to anyone interested (or not). Umami, a word meaning "savory" in Japanese, is the flavor compound that makes tomatoes taste riper, grilled meat melt on your tongue, and soy sauce a go-to condiment. It's also why the much-maligned monosodium glutamate (MSG) makes food smack better. The savory sensation derives directly from your tongue's reception of glutamic acid in meat, cheese, or vegetables like mushrooms. Hanni theorizes that the bitterness in wine becomes more palatable when softened with the umami found in food, explaining why a young, tannic cabernet sauvignon becomes more pliable when paired with a well-marbled rib-eye.
On top of that steak, Hanni also sprinkles acidity and salt — additional bitterness tamers — using a spice blend he invented called Vignon. A couple years back, he and a partner threw some cash together and developed an all-natural, umami-rich salt substitute with 29 astringency-suppressing ingredients, including dehydrated lemon juice, parmesan cheese, salt, and dried mushrooms. The result is a food-and-wine-pairing makeover, no matter what the wine or how dry or sweet it is. When a beaming Hanni offered up a Vignon-tossed asparagus salad — a stereotypically wine-hating vegetable — with a swig of tannic cabernet-merlot, I was skeptical. But after one bite, I now use the stuff all the time.
Armed with umami knowledge and a map of the tongue, Hanni's taking on the wine industry. Citing our coffee-drinking habits as an example, Hanni remarked that sugar, often crammed into Starbucks' bitter offerings, is shunned in the wine industry. Even though humans naturally prefer sweet flavors, wineries continue to push dry wines. But our sugar love is mapped on our tongues, buried in the recesses of our taste buds. Having more bumps indicates higher sensitivity to bitterness. Hanni theorizes that we evolved this way because, during our hunter-gatherer days, sweet meant sustenance and bitter meant death, explaining why women — historically the family feeders — prefer fruitier wines.
Hanni tells everyone, "Don't believe what you think." And don't let the establishment lay guilt or shame on you; sweet is cool, and apparently, quite native.
To put people at ease with their primal urges, he developed an online taster test called the "Budometer" to categorize wine drinkers into four different segments: 1) Sweet, 2) Hyper Sensitive, 3) Sensitive, and 4) Tolerant, with Sweet being the most sensitive to bitterness and Tolerant the least. I asked a crew of 20 volunteers to take the test, and they showed remarkable consistency in their wine proclivity. The Sweets leaned toward sweet wines, while the Tolerants desired more tannins and flavor. According to Hanni, more than 50 percent of people fall in the Sensitive category, with the rest spread out over the remaining three segments. Women dominate the Sweet and Hyper Sensitive categories, while men, the Tolerant. As expected, some Sweets vehemently resisted the moniker, but blind tastes proved the results. For the record, I'm a Hyper Sensitive, proudly sharing the segment with British wine critic Jancis Robinson.
I'm sold on the concept. Take the three-minute online quiz at budometer.com, and learn where you fall. It will probably make you feel better about the Riesling you guzzle on the sly. M
Borsao Monte Oton 2007 Garnacha Incredible value wine. Medium-bodied, this perfect-for-everyday Grenache has cherry and raspberry, silky tannins, and a pretty, forever finish. $10. eeee
Pierre Sparr 2005 Pinot Blanc Reserve This humble wine speaks volumes in taste — pear, tangerine, and Welch's white grape juice (in a good way). Soft, approachable, and finishes with a clean citrus sensation. $20. eeee