Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Proper Placement of Words

According to the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), the arm of the Treasury Department that regulates alcohol, in order to use the words Ice Wine on a label the grapes for that wine must have been harvested while frozen, the grapes, not the people who pick them, although they are frozen too, because to meet the requirement the grapes must be picked in the early morning hours and at temperatures well below freezing.

The ostensible reason for the TTB rule is so that consumers know that Ice Wine was produced in as similar a manner as the Eisweins of Germany and the Ice Wines of Canada, two places other than the U.S. where frozen grapes are harvested. I say “in as similar a manner” because in the U.S. the rules end with the requirement that the grapes be picked frozen. In the two other countries, the rules are more stringent, placing conditions not only on when to pick but how, and even on the prescribed temperature at which to pick.

TTB labeling rules plainly state that the word Ice must be followed by a space and then followed by the word Wine, but the rules don’t seem to care one way or the other what a winery wants to call a wine that was produced from grapes that had not been frozen on the vine, but had been frozen, as in cryogenics or a simple large freezer. These wines can be called Iced Wine or any other creative construction that hints at the real thing.

It’s all about the proper placement of words, or maybe the improper placement of them.

Ice Wine production is a lengthy and expensive process, and thanks to climate conditions, it isn’t possible every year. To produce Ice Wine you must start with grape varieties that are truly thick-skinned and able to hang on the vine for months without deteriorating much. The Ice Wine harvest can take place anywhere between Thanksgiving and sometime in January, depending on when the major frigid time of the late autumn-early winter season hits. The producer must have the luck to avoid botrytis while waiting—a process that is necessary for Late Harvest dessert wines that are purposely harvested as raisins but never frozen.

Wines picked at regular harvest time and then frozen give producers the opportunity to forgo certain trepidation from a long, dangerous wait.

If all goes well, grapes for Ice Wine are frozen and intensified inside their skins. The intensity of the frozen juice creates the opposite of what you might expect. Instead of the acidic fruit salad with honey overtone intensity of Late Harvest dessert wine, Ice Wine has a delicately silky texture with hints of stone fruit flowers; it attacks the palate with the feel of a flavorful liquid ball. In my mind’s eye, Ice Wine is like liquid in the shape of an ice cream scoop, an apt vision as this liquid ice cream seems drenched in a sometimes nutty, sometimes butterscotch caramelized syrup.

Ice Wine’s closest culinary brethren may be baked Alaska.

In fact, at a recent tasting of Ice Wines, I was floored by their “cooked” caramelized characteristic. I asked how is it that wine produced from frozen grapes can seem cooked? The answer was so simple it embarrassed me that I asked the winemakers on the panel whose wines it was that I had just tasted.

While waiting for the right freezing temperatures, grapes hanging out there endure swings of autumn and then winter temperatures that can range from pretty warm to pretty cool. During those long periods of back and forth, an enzymatic twist occurs as the grapes go through a kind of cooking and cooling process over and over.

When a producer leaves grapes to hang for extended periods of time, along with the risk of deterioration comes crop loss and loss of juice volume from the remaining crop. That of course increases the cost of producing the wine. This is where the other frozen wines have an advantage: since the grapes are picked usually during regular harvest, crop loss is almost nil. Even after time spent in the freezer the grapes provide more wine than their Ice Wine counterpart, and with less effort.

The freezer-frozen version can be found on retail shelves at half the price of Ice Wine and sometimes even cheaper than that. Yet, the profile of freezer-frozen wines recently tasted alongside Ice Wines did not deliver the exotic silkiness wrapped in caramel that makes the real thing of great interest.

Sadly, many consumers don’t know the difference between an Iced Wine and an Ice Wine that they may see side by side on retail shelves. If they make their buying decision strictly on price, then to me it’s as if the TTB rules have placed Ice Wine at a state-sponsored disadvantage.

Sure, consumers can ask, because on wine labels proper placement of words has meaning. But the immortal twisted syntax of another bureaucrat, Donald Rumsfeld, applies here: “sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know.”

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
March 2010. All rights reserved.


  1. Thomas, thanks for the ice wine education. I've always been suspicious of food/beverage labeling variations. It is not unlike seeing '...with chocolate flavoring' or something similar in very, very small print on a product. So I take it with a grain of salt when buying.

    When I worked briefly at a very large beverage company, I was surprised to learn that while their cherry juice or kiwi-strawberry juice could be labeled "100% Juice," it was not 100% of the actual fruit juice shown on the bottle. Anywhere from 90% to 99% of the fruit juice was apple with the remainder comprised of (preservatives, of course) and the specific fruit extract it was to taste like. (Kiwi extract is pricey!)

    Someone will always exploit labeling regulations to try to pull the wool over consumers' eyes, like 'Iced Wine' as 'Ice Wine.' Let's hope consumers learn the difference!

  2. Marcia,

    Food (and wine) labeling regs are a general abomination, but what else is new???

    I love the "100% Juice" concept. Maybe the wine industry can dispense with the misleading 75% varietal labeling rule and just plainly state on all bottles "100% Wine." Let the consumer figure out which wine.

    Better still, let the wine critics taste the 100% Wine and figure out what it is; then, they can tell consumers which wine is in each bottle and of course, which ones to like.

  3. Yes, "100% Wine"...probably already on some Bonny Doon labels (if Mr. Grahm got the COLA for it! LOL)

    Guessing the varietal? One of my favorite wine shops downtown does blind tastings 1st Thursday of the month. I've been too scared to go back since the 1st go-round.

    You had to guess (of course) varietal. But he also wanted everyone to take a stab at guessing vintage and appellation. (Not so hard for HMW/MS types.) But for us non-spitters (per se), it's a bit more difficult....

    Now, I don't mind the blind tastings planned by the owner (not on Thursdays) 'cuz he chooses wisely and does not repeat varietals within the half dozen options for the night; and he tries to pick more 'definitive' representations of each varietal.

    But these '1st Thursday' things are much trickier: they are BYOW. So you can have 5 cabs and 10 pinots floating in a sea of upwards of 30 bottles brought in by guests.

    My only consolation was that all the pro's there---the cellarmasters, winemakers, M.S. candidates, etc.---many of them only got half or more of the varietals correctly guessed too. Then I didn't feel so bad. ...At least they were ALL "100% Wine." :-)

  4. Yeah, well, most of wine evaluating is a guess.

  5. Ah, the "Name That Wine Game"...French winemakers love this game. Cannot tell you how many times I've been standing in a freezing cold cellar with some French dude grinning at me as I try to either guess what kind of wine it is, (if he pulled it from his personal cellar) or which vintage of his wine. This game more often than not makes me feel like a tard.

  6. Sam,

    In New York, even after decades of Vitis vinifera wines,w e still have a discussion ongoing about the conflict between those who produce from hybrid and so-called native American grapes (most of the ones we have here are hardly native).

    In any case, we once had a winemaker who was taught in California, worked in California and also in Alsace and then came to the Finger Lakes. He used to frequently rail against "those hybrid" grapes.

    At our regular monthly winemaker gatherings, where we tasted wines blind and discussed them, someone brought a Chambourcin (a hybrid) that was produced in Pennsylvania. It was quite a nice wine, and after tasting it blind, the winemaker who railed against "those hybrids" proclaimed that particular wine one of the best Bordeaux that he had tasted in a while.

    Everyone's a critic. But few are any good at guessing.