If you haven’t heard about umami yet, you’re missing out on the Next Big Thing. I bring up the topic of umami in view of this week’s dining column, which is about sushi. Until recently, human tongues were thought to have flavor receptors that recognized just four common tastes: sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Every flavor—from Arctic Char to zucchini blossoms—was to be found within the four-taste paradigm.
And then, along came umami. Oh, mama!
Actually, umami was first identified in 1908 at Tokyo Imperial University. However, it has recently been rediscovered and has created a great deal of excitement among chefs and foodies. The Japanese word umami means “savory.” But umami, having also been appropriated to describe the “fifth taste,” now is used to describe flavors found in natural amino acids, glutamates and glutamic acids, usually present in protein-heavy foods. That’s the scientific part. If you’ve ever tasted soy or fish sauce, anchovies, seaweed, tuna, cod, mackerel, squid, truffles, soy beans, shiitakes, MSG, sea urchin, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or Marmite, you’ve experienced umami.
OK, fine. So what does this have to do with wine? Well, one pioneering winemaker—Terry Leighton of Kalin Cellars—is actually making wines with umami in mind. Some experts suggest that Kalin wines can actually evoke that fifth taste. Luckily, although these wines are difficult in many places to get your hands on, Utah wine czar Brett Clifford—a serious foodie himself—has stocked Utah with some of these very interesting and unusual wines. I’ve also seen Kalin on wine lists at Spencer’s and Tuscany.
The first atypical thing you’ll notice about Kalin Cellars wines is that they’re older than most of the California wines in the store. That’s because, according to Kalin, “Most modern wines are made for immediate consumption and evoke the taste sensations of sweet, salty, bitter and sour.” Terry Leighton calls these “fast wines” as opposed to Kalin Cellars wines: “slow wines” intended to age three to 10 years in the bottle before drinking.
Kalin wines are old school, made in the classical European mold. According to the winemaker, “Kalin Cellars wines achieve umami by the use of artisanal methods: barrel or cuvee fermentation, sur lies aging, malolactic fermentation, extended barrel development, bottling with no filtration and aging in temperature and humidity controlled underground cellars.”
Tasting Kalin wines is a real treat, but they are so far afield from typical California juice that you almost have to invent new language to describe them. They certainly make an impression. Take the Kalin Cellars 1994 Cuvee LD Sonoma Chardonnay ($31), for example. And yes, that’s 1994, not a typo. Hand-picked grapes were sorted, crushed and gently pressed and the juice fermented and aged sur lies for just short of a year in new French oak. Then comes malolactic fermentation and clarification with bentonite fining. And, oh Lord, is this stuff ever decadent. Deep gold in color, there are floral aromas along with orange, mango, vanilla and, believe it or not, truffles. Yes, I’m talking about Chardonnay. It’s way ripe on the tongue with pretty tropical fruit notes and creamy vanilla flavors—so good, it’s sick.
Then there’s Kalin Semillon Livermore Valley 1996 ($22.65). Simply put, this is America’s best Semillon, bar none. As for the 1996 Cuvee DD Sonoma Pinot Noir ($37.50), it’s a bombastic stunner with wonderfully funky earthy aromas, rotund body for a Pinot, and ripe black-cherry flavors along with spice and leather—a monster.