National Post

Schussing and Sipping at Sun Peaks
by Kate Zimmerman for National Post : Travel

VANCOUVER — Once upon a time, the wines produced in the Okanagan Valley of B.C. were treacle-sweet by accident, not on purpose.

In the early days of the B.C. wine industry, the plonk produced here (from inappropriate labrusca, or native American, vines) was the stuff of Sweet Sixteen parties and drunkards’ nightmares. In the late 1980s, the provincial government subsidized an industry-wide switch to European (Vitis vinefera) vines.  Since then, B.C.’s bottles have regularly won awards and accolades. And the Okanagan’s honeyed icewines are considered a breed apart, coveted by oenophiles all over the world and celebrated in a festival that sells out yearly at the Sun Peaks Resort near Kamloops, just a few hours’ drive from B.C.’s wine country.

At this year’s Icewine Festival, snow sports, wine-tasting, special dinners and educational seminars are all on the menu, says Okanagan Wine Festivals co-coordinator, Christina Ferreira. The seventh annual event takes place Jan. 20-23, features 26 winemakers, and is poised to repeat last year’s attendance of 1,000 tipplers.

The third largest ski resort in Canada, Sun Peaks offers numerous lures through the winter season —117 downhill runs on three mountains plus snowshoe tours, horse-drawn sleigh rides, dog-sledding and, new this year, snow-biking (using bikes mounted on skis).  But on this particular weekend, experts in the field such as Vancouver’s John Schreiner, author of Icewine: The Complete Story, make sure everyone is well-lubricated as they explore the finer points of the province’s priciest form of ambrosia. Meanwhile, all over the resort, in lodges and restaurants, winemakers and chefs offer tastings and pairings of gourmet treats with icewines and other B.C. potables.

“It introduces icewines to a lot of people but we don’t just pour icewine,” says Ferreira.

“The primary purpose of (all the Okanagan wine festivals) is to attract people to go back to the wineries themselves.”

One of the winemakers participating Friday and Saturday nights is Tilman Hainle, who, with his late father, Walter, pioneered icewine making in Canada 25 years ago. Walter had immigrated from Germany, which had a long tradition of “eiswein” — wine made from grapes that have been left to freeze on the vine.  But in those days, the beverage was alien here.

The Hainles began harvesting “marbles” (industry-speak for those frozen grapes) in Peachland, B.C. in 1973, before there was a market for the stuff.  In 1978 they put their first bottles of it on the shelves. Competitors followed, but icewine sales muddled along in B.C. until Ontario producers helped popularize it by making it in large quantities in the 1990s. In its 2004 vintage, Hainle Vineyards will produce 2,000-2,500 bottles of the 200,000-400,000 bottles of icewine that the B.C. Wine Insitute says will be generated by Okanagan wineries.

Now, says frontiersman Hainle, who sold the vineyard in 2002 but continues on there as winemaker, “Icewine has become Canada’s calling card in terms of wine (internationally).”

The distinctive beverage and a snowy ski resort are a natural fit. Hainle points out that icewine is made in the winter. To meet Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) standards, it must be made from grapes that are harvested when the outdoor temperature dips to -8 C or lower. That means winemakers elsewhere in the province don’t have the essential combination of cold enough winters and hot enough summers to produce it.

At $50-$100 for 375 ml., icewine is a truly luxurious entity. Sun Peaks’ Ogden thinks that image enhances its appeal to the 35-50-year olds who make up the resort’s demographic. It doesn’t hurt, Hainle adds, that icewine has  “ a sexy story to go with it. It’s so risky and hard to make.”

In fact, some years there is no icewine harvest because temperatures don’t make the obligatory dip. 

Happily for icewine fanciers, there will be no shortage of it at the festival, and plenty of new ways in which to enjoy this special elixir. For instance, on the afternoon of Jan. 20, a “Stinky Wine and Cheese event” will pair Canadian cheeses with icewines and Late Harvest wines in an effort to dispel the notion that sweet wines and desserts are the only marriage worth toasting.

But the highlight of the weekend, according to Ogden, is usually the Progressive Tasting on Saturday night, when over 600 participants slide merrily from venue to venue throughout the resort, investigating a vast array of vinos.

“The village really comes alive,” he explains. “The whole thing is just really unique.”

Packages at Sun Peaks for the Icewine Festival start at $399 per person, which includes three nights’ accommodation, tickets to the Magic of Icewine and Dessert Competition, Blind Wine and Cheese Tasting, and Sun Peaks Progressive Tasting, and a two-day lift pass. Other packages are available. Call 1-800-807-3257 or visit www.sunpeaksresort.com.

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