Frozen assets

Alcohol and altitude can be a potent mix, but as John Lee found at an icewine festival in British Columbia, they can be an awful lot of fun too
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The Independent Travel

Only when lying in a deep drift of crunchy snow staring blearily at a night sky pin-pricked with bright stars did it dawn on me that not all wine festivals are created equal. It was -5C on a Saturday night in January and the highlight of an annual event that is increasingly pulling in the crowds was reaching its apex at the Sun Peaks ski resort in British Columbia. Comfortably padded in my borrowed snow-suit, I had marked the occasion with a spectacular slip on an invisible patch of ice.

Only when lying in a deep drift of crunchy snow staring blearily at a night sky pin-pricked with bright stars did it dawn on me that not all wine festivals are created equal. It was -5C on a Saturday night in January and the highlight of an annual event that is increasingly pulling in the crowds was reaching its apex at the Sun Peaks ski resort in British Columbia. Comfortably padded in my borrowed snow-suit, I had marked the occasion with a spectacular slip on an invisible patch of ice.

There are many good reasons to visit the Sun Peaks Icewine Festival - fascinating seminars, lip-smacking dinner events, cosy lodges and some of the best outdoor winter activities in Canada - but the tasting is the best. Twenty wineries set up their stalls and offer more than 100 wines at locations throughout this picture-postcard village, while increasingly tipsy visitors slip, slide and in my case tumble their way between them in an attempt to keep their glasses as full as possible.

As I was helped to my feet by a couple of jolly strangers who said that they had thoroughly enjoyed my dazzling fall, I realized it was probably time to slow down a little. Staggering to a nearby bench, I sat back, breathed in the crisp, cold air and reflected on an event that seriously challenges the notion of stuffy and snobbish wine festivals. With wine festivals becoming as ubiquitous around the world as cheap bottles of supermarket plonk, British Columbia's winter version is a great palate-cleanser.

Held in the third week of January, the annual four-day event, now in its seventh year, celebrates a distinctive tipple that's become a signature of Canadian wineries. Made from grapes frozen on the vine - and there are plenty of fake "icewines" on the market that don't meet this simple quality criterion - Canadian icewine is a premium, über-sweet dessert wine sold in distinctive slender bottles at upwards of £25 a throw. While countries such as Austria and Germany produce their own versions, Canada's is a product that reflects the country's enduring international image as a snowy winter wonderland.

It's an ideal that's perfectly exemplified at Sun Peaks, a smaller, less chi-chi version of Whistler, the region's biggest ski resort and co-host of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Eschewing Whistler's overcrowded slopes, savvy visitors instead come here to enjoy some of the province's best skiing, snow-shoeing and snowboarding. With three nearby peaks - Tod Mountain, Sundance and Mount Morrisey - the resort has one of Canada's largest ski areas, with 116 runs, 10 chairlifts and 3,600 skiable acres. But for those who want a break from all that exertion or who are simply looking for a better way to warm-up in winter temperatures that routinely drop well below zero, the icewine festival is a huge draw.

During the day - although never early enough to eat into anyone's hangover recovery time - seminars and tastings are held at quaint, timber-framed lodges throughout the village. Since the festival is aimed less at wine experts and more at those of us who simply like a tasty glass or two, these events are refreshingly neophyte-friendly. Averaging two hours each, last year's seminars included a fascinating introduction to icewine production.

Visitors learn that icewine grapes are grown locally in the Okanagan Valley and are harvested only when temperatures drop to -10C. While many regional wineries (including the internationally renowned labels Sumac Ridge, Quails' Gate and Mission Hill) focus mainly on the production of mainstream wines, icewine is a growing boutique segment of their business. Bottles of icewine can cost several hundred pounds each and many are exported around the world.

Among the most popular events in 2004 was an afternoon wine-and-cheese pairing session where worldwide vintages were combined with a range of piquant Canadian cheeses, many created by Quebec and Gulf Islands artisan producers. Participants mixed and matched samples, crushing cheese between their fingers to release the taste, and learned some of the intricacies of successfully matching complementary flavours. Blue Benedictine cheese was paired with icewine, three-year-old cheddar with merlot and camembert with Gewürztraminer, but the main lesson was that no one needs to be an expert to trust their taste buds. Ending with a quick homily on how to remove the top of a champagne bottle with a sabre - finding the seam on the bottle is the key, apparently - this entertaining event left most primed for an evening of carousing.

With some night-time events overlapping, visitors to the festival have to choose between casual and more formal evening options. One laid-back event last year combined live blues in a local pub with several popular wine-tasting tables, while another saw local chefs competing to create the best dessert featuring icewine as an ingredient. But those looking for fine dining took in one of eight Winemasters' Dinners, at which the resort's finest restaurants joined forces with sixteen international wineries.

Selecting the bargain £50-per-head Sandhill and Quails' Gate dinner in the swanky ballroom of the Delta hotel, I sat down to a four-hour feast prepared by a team of expert chefs. Paired with 12 wines, including several limited-edition vintages, the sumptuous seven-course meal included regional specialities such as Thompson Valley salmon, Clover Valley honeycomb sorbet and famed Canadian beef tenderloin, served with potato gratin, chanterelle mushrooms, foie gras and fine jus. The ultra-rich chocolate dessert finale, combined with a lip-smacking 2000 Riesling icewine, finished off most diners and left me wishing I owned trousers with an elasticated waistband.

The next morning was a late one for many, but the bracing air from my hotel balcony engendered a swift recovery from the previous night's indulgence. Perusing the nearby slopes of Tod Mountain, which were already coming to life with energetic skiers and snowboarders, I could see that the curtains in most of the nearby snow-covered lodges were already open. Calling down to the hotel lobby, I booked a snowshoe hike for 11am.

An hour later, I was tramping between snow-draped fir and hemlock trees along the mountain base in the kind of enveloping silence only found when you're miles away from any cities. With a single guide leading the way and a two-metre snow pack crunching satisfyingly underfoot, all thoughts of my hangover were quickly dispelled. It was around freezing but I was already working up a sweat. A refreshing glass of icewine was starting to look like a good idea once again.

Traveller's Guide

The 2005 Sun Peaks Icewine Festival (001 250 861 6654; www.owfs.com) runs from 20-23 January. The average price for each event is around C$40 (£18), with Winemasters' Dinners ranging from C$40-120 (£18-£54). For general information on visiting Sun Peaks, go to www.sunpeaksresort.com.

Getting There

Air Canada (0871 220 1111; www.aircanada.com) and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) fly daily to Vancouver from Heathrow. From Gatwick, Zoom (0870 240 0055, www.flyzoom.com) flies to Vancouver three times a week in January, and Canadian Affair (08700 753 000; www.canadian-affair.com) flies every Saturday. Air Canada flights from Vancouver to nearby Kamloops Airport take about an hour and cost around £150 return. Driving from Vancouver takes four hours but can be difficult in winter.

Staying There

The 220-room four-diamond Delta Sun Peaks Resort (001 250 578 6000; www.deltasunpeaksresort.com) is the village's best hotel. The hotel rents out equipment and guides, and has hot-tubs, a sauna and a heated outdoor pool for après ski relaxation. Rooms start at C$179 (£80) per night during the festival. Icewine festival package deals are available through the festival office.

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