Americans’ love affair with wine continues as the taste of fermented grapes goes beyond the glass. Bottled wine sales data from numerous sources indicate chardonnay is the leading favorite, followed by cabernet then merlot. These three also happen to be the leading wine flavors showing up in consumer packaged goods.

Wine as a characterizing ingredient in foods has come a long way since port was first blended into process cheddar cheese and formed into a nut-covered ball. From merlot pasta sauce to chardonnay granola bars, wine flavors are showing up in all types of non-beverage applications.

Product formulators are challenged, however, when it comes to flavoring foods with real “drinkable” wine, as the stuff-off-the-shelf is highly regulated. For example, some state regulations limit how much alcohol may be used to formulate packaged foods. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms requires special taxes to be paid on alcohol, as well as requiring food formulas be approved.

Because dealing with regulatory agencies can be timely and costly, product developers try to trick consumers into thinking they are tasting “the real thing.” This may be accomplished in a variety of ways. However, before a formulator chooses which path to follow, the marketing department must decide what type of language is desired on product labels. Should the pasta sauce be called “merlot-flavored” or should it be flagged as “made with real merlot?”

If “merlot-flavored,” or something similar is acceptable, the easiest and least expensive approach is to use a flavor extract or concentrate. Depending on the application, it may be necessary to use a flavor sensation system that provides the familiar alcohol burn and tingle that somewhat dries the mouth.

Sometimes wine flavors are used along with ingredients that are close to the real thing. This means products may be labeled as being made with the real thing, but a food manufacturer does not need to worry about having any employees sneaking tastings. This is because formulators are choosing denatured wines, which are wines that contain ingredients such as garlic, onion or salt in concentrations that render them unsuitable for drinking. Denatured liquors are also exempt from state and federal taxes.

Salt denaturation is the most common and often the easiest to work with, as a formulator simply adjusts the salt content of the formulation to account for the salt in the wine. Further, to retain as much flavor as possible, it is best to add the denatured wine as late in the process as possible. Some finished products may contain some alcohol, unless they are heat processed. As long as the alcohol content is less than 0.5%, no alcohol content declaration is necessary.

If it is important that no alcohol be present, yet authentic flavor is desired, some suppliers offer reduced wines that are around a 10-fold concentration of the original wine. With these ingredients, all of the alcohol and a lot of water have been cooked off. The result is a cost-effective, highly flavorful ingredient.

Tasting room tour

Some innovative retail products have wine as a characterizing ingredient. Port wine continues to appear in dairy applications. AtlantaFresh Artisan Creamery, Norcross, Ga., offers a line of artisanal Greek yogurts. The product comes in multiple fat levels in a range of flavors, including black cherry and port wine. Other specialty flavors include Bananas Foster, maple bacon, peach and ginger, strawberry basil balsamic and tropical sweet heat.

Mikawaya, Vernon, Calif., has developed a line of frozen desserts inspired by authentic Asian cuisine and fruits. Sold under the Mikawaya Exottics brand, the line includes plum wine ice cream. The product line made its initial debut in Asian markets and restaurants in the Los Angeles area and may be purchased through the company’s web site.

Other wine flavors are popular in frozen desserts, too. Ciao Bella, Florham Pak, N.J., offers blackberry cabernet sorbet. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, Columbus, Ohio, has a Riesling poached pear sorbet. Roba Dolce Inc., Pomona, N.Y., has a blackberry cabernet sorbet under its recently launched co-branded Roba Dolce Ocean Spray brand. 

Mercer’s Dairy, Boonville, N.Y., has built a business of blending its ice cream with real wine to create frozen desserts intended for those 21-years and older. Varieties include cherry merlot (Bordeaux cherries blended with ice cream and a merlot wine recognized for its plum and black cherry undertones), chocolate cabernet (chocolate ice cream with bits of bittersweet chocolate blended with a cabernet wine filled with dried cherry and cassis notes), peach white zinfandel (ice cream with peaches blended with white zinfandel wine), port (ice cream blended with ruby port wine), red raspberry chardonnay (ice cream blended with raspberry sauce and a chardonnay wine known for its delicate vanilla notes and buttery smooth taste) and Riesling (ice cream blended with a Riesling wine prized for its fruity, crisp refreshing quality). The product is 15% butterfat with 5% alcohol by volume. Each half-cup serving contains 210 to 310 calories, depending on flavor.

Beyond dairy products

Award-winning gourmet lollipop company, Lollyphile, Austin, Texas, prides itself on offering lollipop flavors that do not exist anywhere else. The flavors include bacon, blue cheese and breast milk. A merlot lolly recently joined cabernet and chardonnay.

Influenced by the worlds of boutique wine, gourmet chocolate and potency herbs, Rishi Tea, Milwaukee, offers cocoa cabernet tea. The harmony of red wine grape skins, açaí and maqui berries, rich roasted cocoa nibs and accents of black pepper provides a cup that delights the taste buds while fortifying the body. When brewed, the beverage has a robust body with deep notes of cocoa, dark fruits and a hint of spice.

D’Vine Crush L.L.C., Tiburon, Calif., is a specialty food company that uses the byproducts of grapes to create products that help reduce the wine industry’s environmental footprint. The company blends the repurposed crush of varietal grapes with other natural components to makes its Crush Bars and Crush Bites. The various flavors mirror the notes of a particular wine varietal. This is accomplished by using crushed wine grape seeds and skins, which are dried and ground into flours. Other ingredients are added to each product that mirror the flavors of the particular varietal. For instance, Cork Screw Cherry Pinot highlights the cherry notes and spice that are characteristic of pinot noir. An added benefit is that these varietal flours retain certain components, including antioxidants from the grapes and maintain the particular flavor notes of the varietal being used. In addition to the cherry option, the three other flavors of bars and bites are: Bountiful Bubbles Citrus Cuvee, NobleRot Rapture Plum Port and Toasted Barrel Chardonnay. The company plans to grow the line with additional wine flavors.

Consumers may create their own wine-flavored goodies using products from Napa, Calif.-based Food & Vine Inc. The company has been producing grapeseed oil for the specialty foods market since 1995 and began cold pressing local grapeseeds in Napa Valley in 2010. The company currently offers 11 different grapeseed oils: cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, chenin blanc, French colombard, merlot, Riesling, Sangiovese, Sauvignon blanc, Syrah, Viognier and zinfandel.

The company struggled with what to do with the nutrient-rich byproduct that remains after pressing the grapeseeds. In early 2013, Food & Vine found success with milling the byproduct into flour and recently introduced Salute Santé! Varietal Grapeseed Flours in chardonnay and merlot varieties. The flour is gluten- and sodium-free. Depending on the varietal of the grapeseed, the flour takes on those unique characteristics of the grape and transfers that flavor to the product it is used in.

The multi-purpose flours may be used to make sweet and savory baked goods, including breads, cookies, focaccia, granolas, muffins and pizza crust. They also may be used to make homemade pasta or can be simply sprinkled on yogurt, said co-owner Nanette Humer.

Most wine grapes make their way into a bottle of wine, but a limited supply is reserved exclusively for this award-winning confection from Bissinger’s Handcrafted Chocolatier, St. Louis, Mo. Each grape is infused with shiraz and covered in smooth, dark chocolate. The company also offers a blue cheese variety, where a layer of Point Reyes Blue Cheese is incorporated into the shiraz-infused wine grapes and then enrobed in chocolate.

Fishpeople Corp., Portland, Ore., manufactures ready-to-eat, wild-caught seafood entrees in shelf-stable poaching pouches. The company focuses on using sustainably harvested wild seafood as well as vegetables and herbs grown nearby in Oregon and Washington. The company also uses chardonnay from nearby Cooper Mountain Vineyards, Beaverton, Ore., in two of its entrees: Chinook salmon in a chardonnay reduction sauce and, the most recent addition, salmon in chardonnay dill sauce.

Vino de Milo, Athens, Ohio, has built a specialty foods business around using wine as a characterizing ingredient in jarred condiments and sauces. Specialties include artichoke Parmesan salad dressing with Pinot Grigio, fresh herb marinara pasta Sauce with Argentinean Malbec wine and spicy sun-dried tomato bruschetta with Chianti wine.

A recent introduction comes from Ina, Ill.-based Uncle Joe’s Deli. The company partnered with Pheasant Hollow Winery, Whittington, Ill., to develop Black & Blue & Red Sauce, which is made with Pheasant Hollow’s Black & Blue table wine. The semi-sweet wine has ultra-rich blackberry-blueberry flavor with a blackberry finish. The flavors meld with crushed tomatoes to create a one-of-a-kind red sauce.

With a little help from some fermented grapes, all types of unique flavor profiles are possible. Cheers!