British Columbia, where icewine and powder runs come together

Progressive wine tasting at the Sun Peaks Winter Okanagan Wine Festival.
Progressive wine tasting at the Sun Peaks Winter Okanagan Wine Festival. Sun Peaks Resort

Dinner came in luscious waves. First a delicate spoonful of icewine-infused, smoked salmon, then a scallop ravioli covered gently with champagne cream sauce, then strips of roast pork marinated in Tahitian vanilla, garlic and sage, and finally, the most amazing ice cream made with sour cream and fig-wine sauce. All of this was paired with the best wines interior British Columbia has to offer.

And every mouth-watering bite, every tongue-tantalizing drop was absolutely guilt free. My husband and I had come to the Sun Peaks Resort in British Columbia to ski as well as to eat and drink. Earlier that day, we had been up to our knees in fresh powder snow, skiing our legs into rubbery submission.

All those yummy calories ... poof, gone.

That’s the wonderful thing about holding a wine festival at a ski resort. You can eat, drink and be very, very merry without an ounce of remorse.

But a wine festival in mid-January? With all that snow?

Well, yes. When better to celebrate, among other things, a wine made out of frozen grapes?

Icewine has been around for centuries, we learned, but the popularity of it is pretty new. We’re talking less than two decades, which in wine epochs is like the snap of a finger.

Icewine is a dessert wine. But its beauty is in its light taste. It’s not syrupy, as so many alcoholic dessert drinks can be. And yes, it’s expensive, but there’s a reason.

We arrived at Sun Peaks in mid-January as wine neophytes. Wine festivals can be somewhat snobbish affairs with folks decanting this and slurping that and talking in an utterly foreign language where nose has nothing to do with your face.

“That’s OK,” said Sandra Oldfield of Tinhorn Creek Vineyards, who was filling us in on the finer points of wine lore at the Sun Peaks Winter Okanagan Wine Festival. “I’m going to assume some of you are totally new to a wine festival.”

She then launched into a history of icewines.

Stories say that icewine was accidentally discovered in Germany in 1794 by a farmer trying to save his grape harvest after a sudden frost. But it wasn’t made commercially even in Europe until the 1960s and it stayed below the radar in North America.

Then, in the 1980s, vineyards in both the Niagara region of Ontario and British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley realized they had the perfect conditions for icewine. You need good wine grapes, of course, but you also need frost at just the right time. What makes the stuff so expensive is the risk factor plus the labor.

A vineyard has to set aside part of its crop and not pick it during the usual harvest. These grapes sit, waiting for the temps to dip below 15 degrees so they look like little glass marbles. If that doesn’t happen before the grapes rot or if the temperature rises during the harvest, the whole crop is lost.

If the frost comes on time, the frozen grapes are hand picked and pressed immediately. The frozen water gets left behind, and what comes out of the press is a tiny drop of liquid, saturated with sugar.

It takes about seven pounds of grapes to make one 375 milliliter bottle of icewine. That same amount of grapes would produce more than a quart of table wine.

The end result is a gold-colored wine that is sweet yet light. And not cheap. A 375 ml bottle goes for $50 to $120.

The next morning, we skiied runs with fresh powder. In the afternoon, we did two more seminars and I learned how to drink red wine. Finally.

The table at the first seminar held a dish with tiny piles of salt and sugar along with a lemon wedge.

“Taste the wine. Then taste the salt and sip the wine again,” said Eric Von Krosigk, Hester Creek’s winemaker. “Then do the sugar and the lemon.”

Wow, that was unexpected! The salt made red wine taste almost sweet. The sugar made the tannin shrivel our tongues. The lemon turned it almost into a dessert wine.

“What you pair wine with makes all the difference,” we were told.

A couple of tips: cheese and olives are equalizers for really bad, old-style Italian reds. The fat binds up tannins that might otherwise concave your palette. Eggs work well with Riesling. There’s nothing better than dunking biscotti in a nice icewine. Cheap reds and donuts work surprisingly well.

And the absolute no nos?

Too much garlic with any wine. Pasta and sweet whites. Big reds and sushi.

Between all this, we managed to also taste the mountain.

Sun Peaks, sitting in its own little valley 30 miles from Kamloops in British Columbia’s interior, catches the same light snow that makes nearby heli ski terrain famous.

What was once a single chair serving seriously scary expert terrain has expanded to 3,700 skiable acres across three mountains with 122 runs and 11 lifts; 7,000 beds in hotels, condos and townhouses, 22 restaurants and enough non-ski activities (ice skating, tubing, dog sledding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, Nordic skiing, sleigh rides, a full-service spa) to keep anyone happy.

The village is small and easily walked, with that upscale-rustic mix of peeled logs, rough stone and muted colors that has become an almost standard North American ski resort style. It’s comfy and low key and at night, twinkling lights turn it into a fairyland.

Then in mid-January, all this turns into wine central, with competitions, seminars, a blow-out winemaster’s dinner plus the signature event, a progressive tasting. What started 10 years back with a single night of festivities and 109 guests is now 10 days (two weekends and a full week) and 1,000 people.

Our last night, we walked the village. Street lights twinkled against thick layers of snow on trees and roofs in a scene straight out of Currier and Ives.

Yes, we probably slurped one or three too many. But the cold air soothed us and the walk through the snow-covered trees under a spectacular starry sky refreshed us.

And the next morning, six inches of untouched snow sat atop the groomed runs. Just waiting.

Wine festivals

The 2015 Sun Peaks Winter Okanagan Wine Festival will run from Jan. 16 to Jan. 25. Events include seminars on how to pair food or chocolate with wine, an introduction to icewine and various tasting events, competitions and dinners.

Sun Peaks Resort:

Okanagan wine festival:

British Columbia:

The Niagara Icewine Festival is the other major Canadian icewine festival. It is held three weekends each year from the middle to the end of January in the Niagara region of Ontario. In 2015, it runs from Jan. 9 to Jan. 25. This is Canada’s oldest and largest festival with outdoor icewine cafes, trips out to the fields to pick frozen grapes, ice carving contests, a gala formal dinner and more.

Niagara Icewine Festival: