Dinner came in luscious waves. First, a delicate spoonful of ice-wine-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 mouthwatering bite, every tongue-tantalizing drop was absolutely guilt-free, because we had spent half that day up to our knees in fresh powder, skiing our legs into rubbery submission on the slopes of Sun Peaks Resort in British Columbia (250-578-5399, sunpeaksresort.com).
All those yummy calories — poof! Gone. That's the wonderful thing about attending 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?
You've probably heard of ice wine. But the truth is, though the concept of ice wine is centuries old, the popularity of it is relatively new. We're talking less than two decades, which in wine epochs is like the snap of a finger.
Ice wine 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 the Okanagan Valley's 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 ice wines.
Stories say that ice wine was discovered accidentally 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 ice wine. 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 handpicked 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 7 pounds of grapes to make one 375 milliliter (13 ounce) bottle of ice wine. That same amount of grapes would produce more than a quart of table wine.
The result is a gold-colored wine that is sweet yet light. And not cheap. A typical 375 mL bottle goes for $50 to $120.
After a morning of exquisite skiing the next day, we did two more wine seminars, and Yvette 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 winemaker Eric Von Krosigk of Hester Creek Estate Winery, also in the Okanagan Valley. "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 palate. Eggs work well with riesling. There's nothing better than dunking biscotti in a nice ice wine. Cheap reds and doughnuts 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.
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 wine master'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 nine days and 1,000 people.
Our last night, we walked the village. Street lights twinkled against thick layers of snow.
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, 6 inches of untouched snow sat atop the groomed runs. Just waiting.
If you go
Wine has boomed in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, which is about four hours east of Vancouver by car and five hours northeast of Seattle. From maybe a dozen wineries in 1991, there are now more than 100. The Sun Peaks Winter Okanagan Wine Festival runs Jan. 12-20. Events include seminars on how to pair food or chocolate with wine, an introduction to ice wine and various tasting events, competitions and dinners. thewinefestivals.com
British Columbia ski info: hellobc.com