Getting a Taste for Wine - Interview with Tim Hanni MW

December 2005

Tim Hanni MW

  • Although interest in and knowledge of umami is continually increasing amongst many different people all over the world, one field where it seems to be becoming an especially popular topic of discourse is in the appreciation of wine, and particularly the skilful pairing of food and wine.

    There can be few people better qualified to expand on this topic than Tim Hanni MW, a food and wine expert who is based in the fertile wine-producing region of the Napa Valley in California, USA. Those letters after his name signify that he is a Master of Wine - one of only a handful of people across the world who have passed a fiendishly difficult examination on the finer points of wine, which has a 97% failure rate. He is equally proud of the fact, however, that he is credited with introducing the term umami into the lexicon of food & wine experts, and as such has earned the sobriquet 'the swami of umami'.

    Giving the Customers What They Want

    Having been a professional chef and wine expert for many years, Tim's latest project is a venture called WineQuest, a hospitality training company which is revolutionising the way hotels and restaurants approach pairing wine and food with their guests. Tim felt that for too long, in his words, wine professionals had "little or no regard for the person consuming the product," and did not take the customer's satisfaction into account, because they relied on very set ideas about which wines went with which dishes, such as pairing red wine with red meats and white wine with poultry and fish.

    He and his colleagues have therefore designed a training course for sommeliers and waitstaff that encourages them to put greater emphasis on what the customer would like first, ahead of any preconceived ideas about which combinations conventional wisdom or tradition may dictate are or are not 'proper'. In order to do this, he took a fundamental look at the causal factors that contribute to what makes certain food and wine react the way they do, and it seems that umami played an important role in this voyage of discovery.

    His method of wine pairing relies on what is known as 'sensory adaptation', and is based on the idea that when two items containing a certain taste are experienced together or consecutively, the effect of that taste can be downplayed or eliminated entirely, and other tastes accentuated. Tim explains this by explaining that "if you have a glass of strong red wine, and then eat something sweet, the wine will become extremely bitter," because the sweetness of the food cancels out any sweetness in the wine, and exaggerates the bitter aspects. The opposite occurs when a wine is consumed with food relatively higher in acidity and saltiness - the overall effect is that any sweetness and umami tastes in the wine are accentuated and the acidity and bitterness in the wine appear to be lessened.

    These basic understandings of the way the basic tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter work together enabled Tim to get a better idea of how to successfully marry wines to particular dishes and vice versa. As he points out however, "umami was the key when unlocking the essentials of well-balanced food and wine combinations." He first learned of the existence of a fifth taste in 1990, and as he discovered more about it he realised that it explained many of the reasons why certain foods such as artichokes, asparagus, scallops and ripe cheese have certain effects on other flavours. The connection between them, of course, is that they are all rich in glutamate, the naturally occurring compound that embodies the taste of umami.

    Umami-Rich Wine?

    Because umami - along with sweetness - is a taste which human beings are predisposed to find pleasant, it can be combined with bitterness and saltiness to create a perfectly balanced combination of tastes. Very traditional dishes in both France and Italy, for example, the classic French dish Cepes a la Bordelaise or the Italian dish Bistecca Alla Fiorentina, will have lemon juice and salt added to counteract the rich umami flavour of the mushrooms or beef. In order to balance the flavours over the whole dining experience, however, the wine has to be taken into account, and this inevitably raises the question - does wine contain umami? And if so, how much?

    While Tim says it is a "dreadfully complicated" task to determine exactly the glutamate content of wine, both because of the alcohol content and because there is no standardised method of measurement, he is in no doubt that it is present, along with nucleotides which are produced by the autolyzation of yeast cells during the fermentation and aging process. In fact, he says that "some red wine has glutamate levels approaching those of cheese," and as umami aficionados will know, that is a lot.

    Balancing the Five Tastes
    Tim's work in achieving a greater understanding of sensory adaptation has led to the creation of what he calls Progressive Wine Lists, which are broken down by taste characteristics, allowing waiters to suggest wine and food combinations which overall have a perfect balance of the five basic tastes. The technique means that "if the kitchen and the wine list are working in concert, it takes away the question of which comes first [the food or the wine]." The diner can therefore make a choice based either on a particular wine they want to drink or a dish they want to eat. In other words, "you can have it your way - it's not about being right or wrong."

    In this context, foods that are rich in umami will reduce the effect of the umami present in wine, and therefore cause the bitterness and astringency of the wine to come to the fore. For this reason, it is best to pair foods high in umami with wines that have lower levels of bitterness and astringency, such as Rieslings, Beaujolais and also perhaps modern Shiraz.

    Some commentators feel the need to think of umami as some kind of mystic, zen-influenced concept based on yin and yang. Tim is at pains to get across the message that the effects of umami are real and grounded in scientific fact. As he himself points out, there is "more misconception than understanding" in the wine world at present about what exactly umami is, but if anyone can do something about rectifying this, it is surely the 'swami of umami' himself.

    You can find out more about the work of Tim's company WineQuest at

  • Tim Hanni MW




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