The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will soon issue a ruling that modifies the agency's stance on the production of ice wine. The new ruling will specify that wine made from grapes that were frozen after being picked may not be labeled "ice wine" and that, if the label indicates that frozen grapes were used, it must also state that the grapes were frozen postharvest.
The decision, expected within the next couple of months, will supercede the federal agency's earlier approach, which specified only that grapes for "ice wine" must be partially frozen on the vine.
Ice wine, as traditionally made in cooler-climate regions, is produced from grapes that have been harvested late in the year (as early as November or as late as February) and allowed to freeze on the vine. The grapes are pressed while still frozen to yield a sweet, highly concentrated must.
Of late, "ice wine" has been produced in more temperate climates by first picking the grapes, then freezing them by "artificial" means, such as placing them in a freezer.
Randall Grahm, owner of Bonny Doon winery in California, has been making a dessert wine from Muscat grapes frozen after harvest since 1986. The first year, he tried to call the wine "Vin de Glace," but the ATF wouldn't approve it. Grahm renamed it "Vin de Glacière" (icebox wine), which the ATF accepted as long as the back labels indicated that the grapes were frozen postharvest.
"I am utterly convinced that the grapes do not know whether they are getting frozen on the vine or in the freezer in Castroville, California," said Grahm.
He may be right, according to Andrew Waterhouse, a professor and wine chemist at the UC Davis department of viticulture and enology. "It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to discern in a lab the differences between ice wine made from grapes frozen on the vine, and wine made from grapes frozen artificially, postharvest."
So why bother with the ruling if most consumers wouldn't notice the difference? According to Jim Crandall, a program manager in ATF's Public Affairs Division, inquiries from Canadian ice wine producers prompted the ATF to clarify its position on American ice wines.
In 2000, wine trade groups from Canada, Austria and Germany -- all major producers of ice wine -- signed an agreement to establish voluntary international standards for ice wine production. Their member wineries are encouraged to follow traditional practices: grapes must be frozen on the vine, harvested at below-freezing temperatures and crushed in the field.
Read past news about ice wines: