(Repeats to add picture available)
* Province of Ontario produces most of Canada's icewine
* Canadian specialty costs twice as much as Champagne
* Harvest takes place in dead of night
By Atsuko Kitayama
BEAMSVILLE, Ontario, Jan 22 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," Eric Nixon, who works at Malivoire said, adding that
the wines - which sell for about double the price of most
non-vintage Champagnes - are often associated with special
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
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
"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)