“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





21 June 2011



Monosodium Glutamate & Co ... Tastes That Make Us Feel Comfy ... The Great Misunderstood MSG

In the cold sceptical eyes of science, winewriters commit some terrible sins with the descriptors we use. English has very few specific words for aromas or flavours, so it must all be allegorical or metaphorical: we say “smells like apricot” or “reminds me of charcuterie meats”. Some of us even attempt to describe the mood or feeling a wine might instill or trigger, as if to satisfy Leonard Cohen’s plea that we should always write about the quality of the high each bottle produces.

I found myself earlier this week blithely using the term DMS to insinuate the aroma of a particular wine, and whacked on the brakes when I realized that I am far from a biochemist and few of my readers would know what I meant. Back to the handbook.

To many scientifically-trained winemakers, dimethyl sulphide indicates a bad winemaking fault, and for a while it was the catch-cry of wine judges attempting to assert their skills by the simple recognition of this compound in wine, which they would then punish with low scores.

DMS is the major smell of the ocean, arising from the breakdown of phytoplanktons and other life forms. Many mistake it for ozone. In high concentrations, it can be quite repulsive, but when gentle and breezy, it provides a bracing, uplifting feeling. It arises, not only from the ocean, but from the boiling of many foods, from asparagus through the beets to sweet corn, and also, surprise surprise, from the poaching of fish and seaweed.

And, amongst a myriad other confounding compounds, it can occur quite naturally in the fermentation of grapes. The wine I referred to, the Portuguese Casa Santos Lima Quinta das Setencostas Alenquer 2009 white blend, may or may not have particularly high amounts of DMS, but it certainly evoked to me the smell of a seaside cafĂ© on the Atlantic coast; “the sea; the seaweed; the table; the sardines; the bread; the oil”. In other words, the smell of the wine triggered anticipation of seafood. All rather pleasant.

Other compounds which occur naturally in some wines are the glutamates, including the much misunderstood monosodium variety. In the ’seventies, when Australians discovered that Chinese restaurants used MSG to enhance the flavours of their food, there was a fashionable revolt against the practice, and many theories developed about how too much MSG could have a deleterious influence on one’s well-being.

But very few of these complainants understood that the hearty organic tomato they had just harvested from their garden was chockers with natural MSG, or that the charcuterie meats they’d just devoured in their antipasto was also quite naturally enhanced by it.

The Japanese, led by the great scientist Professor Kikunae Ikeda, knew of a flavour enhancer he named umami in 1908, an onomatopaeic word that sounds all the world like the first hungry utterings of a suckling babe. Turns out mother’s milk is naturally laced with the stuff, and it’s largely dependent upon the presence of glutamates.


The glutamates are essential triggers for feelings of satisfaction and well-being; to my confused research, they seem to work a little like WD-40 in the brain, and help it believe the flavours being appreciated in certain foods are better than they probably really are. Because western medicine could not locate receptors for this bio-electronic tonic on the tongue, they were very slow to accept that umami was a fifth legitimate flavour appreciated in the mouth, along with the old quartet of sweet, sour, salt and bitter. It was as if we couldn’t possibly have a conduit to transport glutamates in food directly to the brain because it would simply fuse.

Eventually Nirupa Chaudhari and others at the world-leading University of Miami, Florida discovered a complex mechanism on the tongue that appeared to receive MSG, and simply let the brain know that it was present, so forget your old school biology map of the tongue with its neatly-segmented receptors for sweet, sour, salt and bitter – it’s nowhere near that simple.

Wines that are left in contact with spent yeast, like barrels that are lees-stirred or champagnes aged in bottle develop MSG, along with other glutamates. I suspected this may be the case through my discovery in the ’eighties of premium aged soy sauce and other Japanese and Chinese delights, all of which were rich with natural MSG.

Eventually Richard Goffroy, the chef de cave at Dom Perignon, organized a life-changing lunch at Tetsuya’s restaurant in Sydney, at which Tets presented a series of exquisite dishes to accompany a suite of ancient Dom vintages that Richard generously supplied. Each of these was based on fermented vinegars and sauces that were rich with natural MSG. Eventually, I could keep quiet no longer and suggested to my host that the marriage of his exquisite wines with these delectables was “all dependent on the glutamates”, at which Richard nearly dropped his fork. Nobody, it seemed, was allowed to twig.

That was over a decade back. Since then we have learned a great deal more, thanks to the works of the astonishing Florida team, and Timothy Hanni MW and his team at the California Polytechnic State University.

Hanni’s postulations are very exciting and challenging. He goes as far as to query how winemakers can manipulate these things, beginning in the vineyard, and suggests deep study must be made into very basic things like the vine variety and clone selected, the rootstock, vigor and canopy, total vine management in relationship to soil and climate, and methods of fertilisation.

These are precisely the types of intense study the University of Adelaide could be conducting at its Glenthorne Farm research station.

Bacchus knows, if they could grow a vine that would counteract the filtering device Chaudhari seems to have discovered on the tongue, and let a serious blast of natural MSG directly through into the synapses, we might invent a wine that not only makes nearly everything taste better, including the wine, but would blow Leonard Cohen into a fit of thrash that would make the Ramones wither.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

If I were to tell you that the improved taste in my foods was due to the amount of cyanide I added would you add more cyanide? That is the way it is with people that are sensitive to MSG