I only came across “Umami” a few years ago at a tasting/course by my boss. In case you haven’t heard, it is a relatively new wine term, to describe the “5th Sense” in taste (or some say 6th). So you have Sweet, Sour, Salty, and Bitter. Asian tradition also adds the 5th taste sensation of Hot (as in pepper or spices), and this is where Umami is slotted in instead of Hot – Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter, and Umami.
A Japanese man first identified “Umami” in the unique and distinct taste in Seaweed, and finally discovered it was from the amino acid (protein molecule) Glutamate/Glutamic Acid.
Now, in the context of wine, Umami refers to the extra sense of everything being in perfect balance. So, the Tannin, Oak, Acid, Alcohol and Fruit characters of the wine are all present at the same intensity when you taste the wine, creating a “6th sense” (or 5th sense, depending on where you’re coming from) of taste perception, because that in itself is a unique taste – to have all components come forward at once. This Umami of the wine world was first recognised by MW (Master of Wine) Tim Hanni from America.
Umami in wine doesn’t really come in cheap made table wine, or wine that you need to drink at a young age because it doesn’t have the complexities to age gracefully. Umami is more common in very good quality wines, in a perfectly matured wine. It is Perfect Quality in Taste… Very few wines actually have this Umami effect – although there are so many great world wines, they don’t work like an umami wine – it’s not a good or bad thing, just another aspect of wine. Umami usually needs proper barrel fermentation, malo-lactic fermentation (takes away sourness to wine (malic acid), and gives more softness (to lactic acid) to the wine), ageing in optimum temperature and humidity etc…
but as far as I know, there are a few good umami wines in Aus from a $50 bottle and upward in price/quality. For example, often an aged BIN 389 from Penfolds actually does this Umami pretty well. I personally think Metala Black Label works in the same way. It’s when everything comes forward at once and it takes me a little longer to really see what’s coming out from the wine, but all I know immediately, is that it’s Delicious! Umami Me!