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BEAMSVILLE, Ontario (Reuters) - In the Ontario town of Beamsville, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Niagara Falls, a small crowd of bundled-up figures crouched in a moonlit vineyard on a frigid January night, picking a crop of hard-frozen Gewurztraminer grapes.
With stars shining overhead and ice crystals glittering in the air, the temperature had dropped to minus 10 Celsius, or 14 Fahrenheit. Conditions were nearly perfect to harvest fruit for this year's icewine, a Canadian specialty.
Malivoire, one of the Niagara region's boutique wineries, picks its icewine grapes by hand. For this annual rite of winter it relies on a corps of more than a dozen volunteers, selected by a lottery, to get the grapes off the vine and crushed at just the right moment.
One of those chosen for this year's harvest was Susan Smith, 64, a first-time picker who said she was attracted to the mystique of icewine.
"This experience is something I've wanted to have for a long time," she said. "Having those juicy, fragrant little bunches in your hands and being out under the stars."
Icewine is almost a nectar that is rich with the flavors of apple, peach and apricot. Its hints of honey, nuts and, maybe, a dash of caramel provide a refreshing counterpoint to a blue cheese or fruit-based dessert.
"There is nothing else quite like icewine ... It's a guilty pleasure," said Eric Nixon, who works at Malivoire, adding that the wines - which sell for about double the price of most non-vintage Champagnes - are often associated with special occasions.
Ontario is Canada's icewine capital, accounting for up to 95 percent of the country's production, according to Wine Country Ontario, which represents the province's winemakers.
By provincial law winemakers cannot put the "icewine" label on their product unless the grapes have been picked in temperatures no warmer than minus 8 degrees C (18 degrees Fahrenheit). And the grapes must have sugar level of at least 35 Brix, which is a way of measuring the amount of sugar in a solution. That's close to the sweetness of maple or corn syrup.
Most years harvesting must take place in the dead of night in order to achieve those conditions and the winemaker can usually only give the volunteers a few hours notice at most.
"We have to take the first opportunity," said Molivier's winemaker Shiraz Mottiar. "You can't be casual about it."
In the past, he has called off the harvest even as the volunteers gathered along the vineyard's edge because the temperature had inched above the minimum.
This year, with the pickers working at about minus 10 degrees C, sugar levels came in at 37.8 Brix. "Perfect," Mottiar said. "Right where I'm always aiming,"
Shortly after Malivoire opened, it began to recruit volunteers to help with the 1997 harvest and to its surprise, there was no shortage of candidates. Most years the winery selects just enough people to do the job, leaving others to remain warm and asleep in their beds - and on a waiting list.
In return for their hard work, volunteers will see their name on the back label of Malivoire 2012 Gewurztraminer Icewine, expected to be released in mid-2014.
It is a risky business to make icewine. Leaving the selected vines unharvested for so long means that they could be ravaged by wildlife or mold or rot.
Even in the best years, yields are relatively small, making the juice at least four to five times more expensive than that used for table wines.
The price also adds another layer of risk for the winery, especially in a tough economy.
"Icewine is an expensive luxury item. When the economy goes south, those sorts of items aren't a priority for people to buy," Mottiar said.
Icewine is big business for Ontario representing 4 percent of the province's total wine output, according to VQA Ontario, the province's wine authority.
Canada has become one of the world's major icewine producers competing with Germany and Austria, where it is called Eiswein. New York State's Finger Lakes region and Switzerland are also among the colder climes that make icewine.
"Icewine is a significant attraction," especially in January when the Niagara-on-the-Lake Icewine Festival takes place, said Magdalena Kaiser-Smit, public relations director for Wine Country Ontario.
Climate change is an obvious concern, and some worry that the Niagara region may grow too warm to guarantee a reliable icewine harvest every year.
Barry Cooke, 59, a veteran picker since 2004, recalls that Malivoire's 2008 harvest took place over two days, with a large haul of three different varieties of grapes - Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Cabernet Franc.
By contrast, this year's icewine harvest produced a relatively small yield from a single variety. The two hours of picking on that January night produced enough grapes to make about 1,000 bottles.
"We got half of what we wanted," Mottiar said.
Even so, the winemaker said the experience is like nothing else.
"It comes full circle," he said. "People come together for a one-time harvest and have a celebration afterwards. It's all about the process of making it...The flavor that has developed through the process can't be simulated."
($1 = 0.9837 Canadian dollars)
Editing by Leslie Gevirtz and Kenneth Barry