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 this paired with the best wines interior British Columbia has to offer.
And every mouth watering bite, every tongue tantalizing drop was absolutely guilt free.
For we had spent half that day up to our knees in fresh powder snow, skiing our legs into rubbery submission on Sun Peaks Resort slopes in British Columbia.
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?
Icewine: Frozen Goodness
Well, yes. When better to celebrate, among other things, a wine made out of frozen grapes?
You’ve probably heard of icewine … vaguely. But the truth is, though the concept of icewine is centuries old, 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 okay,” 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 bit of history on 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.
“The first time we did this, “said Sandra, “we waited and waited and waited. Finally, there was this one little drop of juice … and it froze halfway through the line. And when we were finally done, it was like, ‘Huh? did we do anything? The grapes look the same!’”
That’s because it’s like sucking the juice out of a popsicle. You wind up with a vat of syrup and a tank full of ice marbles.
It takes about seven pounds of grapes to make one 375 ml (13 oz) 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.
Wine Pairing: 1 +1 = 3
The next morning for us, it was back to skiing. We were supposed to have breakfast with Nancy Greene, 1968 Canadian Olympic gold medalist and Sun Peaks’ director of skiing.
But the night before, Sun Peaks’ regular little miracle took place. We’ve skied around the world and honestly, this happens no place else with that kind of predictability. The groomers go out around midnight and smooth the runs until they look like billiard table tops. Then it starts to snow. By dawn, six to eight inches of dry, fluffy snow sit atop the groomed runs, turning them into runways where you can bounce powder turns like a pro.
We stuck our heads into Macker’s restaurant at Nancy’s Cahilty Lodge.
“You do understand we’re not having breakfast,” we said.
“Go, go, GO,” Nancy waved towards the lifts with a knowing grin. “There are NO friends on a powder day.”
That 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,” Hester Creek winemaker Eric Von Krosigk said. “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.
Wine has boomed in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. From maybe a dozen wineries in 1991, there are now well over 100.And so folks are learning to really love wine, not just swig it.
Our biggest surprise? Proper pairing involves a lot of juggling of food in your mouth. The idea is to take a bite of food, then a sip of the wine at the same time. The two should combine to something better than each by itself. One and one equals three.
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.
“Just remember to match the intensities,“ Riddick said.
And then … sigh, a student’s work is never done … on to the next seminar: pairing chocolates and wine. Here, we learned that cabernets work magic on just about any chocolate, but seem to do better with sweeter stuff (think milk and white). And icewine really doesn’t go all that well with any chocolate. “With a mouthful of ultra sweet, why toss in extra sugar,” is the way one person put it.
Between all this, we managed to also taste the mountain.
Sun Peaks’ Perfect Skiing
Sun Peaks, sitting in its own little valley 30 milrd from Kamloops in British Columbia’s interior, catches the same light snow that makes nearby heli ski terrain famous. It’s close enough to civilization (a one hour flight from Seattle, shorter from Vancouver) to make it easy to reach but far enough from urban centers so that the slopes don’t turn into anthills on the weekends.
What was once a single chair serving seriously scary expert terrain has expanded to 3,700 ski-able areas 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.
As for the village, it’s 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 nine 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 has boomed in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. From maybe a dozen wineries in 1991, there are now well over 100. The Sun Peaks Winter Okanagan Wine Festival runs in mid January. In 2015, that’s Jan. 17-25. Events include seminars on how to pair food or chocolate with wine, an introduction to icewine and various tasting events, competitions and dinners.
The other major icewine festival is the Niagara Icewine Festival, held three weekends each year around the middle to end of January in the Niagara region of Ontario. 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: www.niagarawinefestival.com
** The other major icewine festival is the Niagara Icewine Festival, held three weekends each year around the middle to end of January in the Niagara region of Ontario. 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: www.niagarawinefestival.com
– Story by Yvette Cardozo, RFT Contributor