While crisp ice wines will always have the delicacy of snow it’s the sweet wine made from Botyrtis grapes that have extra pungency and depth – but perhaps I’m talking rot?
I recently had a glass of Canadian Inniskillin Ice Wine 2006. This wine made from grapes left hanging on the vines until the winter following harvest. When the temperature drops, and the fruit is frozen, they are picked quickly in the early dawn and crushed. The resultant juice is intensely sweet with the purity fresh fruit and snow. The glass I enjoyed had the bracing freshness of a winter morning.
And now I am going to sound churlish, especially as this glass was generously given to me, but it was too clean, too pure, there was something missing. The taste of decay.
I am very fond of botrytis wines: Sauternes, Tokaji and the great sweet whites from the Loire Valley e.g. Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux. All of these are made from grapes affected by noble rot.
Noble rot is the benevolent form of botrytis cinerea, a mould which settles on bunches of grapes, creeping in with early morning fog, piercing the skins of the grapes, leaving them convulsed with decay. Just picking these grapes takes extra time as only those berries which are perfectly rotten can be harvested. Then when these grapes are crushed spores of mould fly up from the vat in a grey cloud, but the juice that runs from off from the crushed fruit is pure alchemist gold. The wines that are made from such grapes have a decadence that other sweet wines made from ice, drying or fortification can only shudder at.
At a recent tasting of 2006 Grands Crus from Bordeaux I enjoyed a sweet run of Sauternes. All had the classic mellifluous flavours. Two wines confirmed their status as my long term favourites, namely: Château Guiraud with its added aroma of Darjeeling tea and Château Doisy Vedrines which has a delicious note of linseed oil on the nose. But all of these Sauternes have the extra dimension that comes from noble rot – a dangerous touch of decay.
Understanding umami can add an extra dimension of deliciousness to the most humble credit crunch dishes while for more glamorous affairs playing up umami can be truly sublime.
Originally defined in Japan, the concept of ‘umami’ has been knocking about in UK foodie circles for a few years now. It is called the fifth sense. It has been embraced by some and derided by others, but personally, I’m a believer. So what is umami? And does it actually matter to good cooks and good eaters?
The Umami Information Centre (oh yes!) www.umamiinfo.com describe it as:
… a pleasant savoury taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid, and ribonucleotides, including inosinate and guanylate, which occur naturally in many foods including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products.
Or in layman’s terms, umami is the thing that entices a person who has been vegetarian for 10 years to eat a bacon sandwich. It is the desire and enjoyment of protein.
Umami is not just a faddish contemporary dietary concoction; the great 19th century French food writer, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who famously wrote ‘tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who are’ was aware of umami. He called it Osmazone:
It is in Osmazone that the principal merit of a good soup resides; the brown of roast meat is due to caramelization of ozmazome; and it is ozmazome that gives its rich flavour to venison and game.
Foods rich in umami include: meat, oily fish, mushrooms, soya beans, parmesan cheese and yeast.
So what does acknowledging umami add to the cook’s repertoire? For those of us on a budget it is the awareness that a simple ingredient like rice will be so much more appealing when it is cooked in umami rich stock to make a pilau or risotto. The umami adds a satisfying dimension which is more than just perfume.
Equally a shaving of parmesan on spaghetti with tomato sauce will turn ordinary fare into something delicious, just as the addition of soy sauce to stir fry will turn a handful of vegetables into a complete meal.
For cooks with a bit more cash to splash putting umami rich meat, fish or cheese at the centre of a menu will be appealing not just because of their flavour and traditional role as pride of place, but because they provide the palate with a physical sense of pleasure as well as belly-filling fulfilment.
So what about umami and drinks? As umami is found in yeast any fermented liquid will have some umami including: beer, sake and wine. One example of the later is sparkling wine which is made with a second edition of sugar and yeast known as liqueur de triage. It is this secondary fermentation which creates bubbles.
Other yeast/umami rich wines are those which have ‘lees’ contact. Lees is the yeasty sediment that collects at the bottom of the fermentation tank. Deliberately letting wine absorb the flavour of this yeast not only adds flavour but a more viscous texture. Many opulent, but unwooded, Chardonnays have had considerable lees contact. Many red wines will also be left on the lees to increase their colour from the crushed skins and pick up umami on the way.
So how do these umami rich wines match food? Well it is the umami rich foods which are their most successful partners. Muscadet sur Lie and mussels is a classic and delicious pairing. Red wine and cheese/meat and increasingly fish is well documented. As for sparkling wines, matching a glass of yeasty Champagne with an umami rich English/Scottish breakfast is one of the best food matches ever. If you haven’t got a reason to try this decadent pleasure then make one up. There really is no excuse!